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Give Yourself a Hug

Self-compassion, performance, and burnout at work.

Self-Compassion: (1) forgive yourself, (2) recognize you are part of the common human experience, and (3) be mindful of the present. These are the three pillars of self-compassion.

Adobe Stock
Source: Adobe Stock

The first time I heard of self-compassion was in 2013 from a former doctoral student. My initial reaction was similar to Shrek’s in the opening of the eponymous film as he was reading about princesses being rescued by dashing knights while taking care of his bathroom business… ("What a load of [sound of toilet flushing].")

I have read the work of Dr. Neff, a pioneer of self-compassion research, and it is solid. Self-compassion can help ward off negative stress, channel positive stress, and reduce a whole host of related clinical issues. Yet, I could not fathom for the life of me how this would be beneficial for hard-nosed business people. I have mocked self-compassion and gone so far as to label it: ‘Hug Thyself Theory’.


I am now a believer after examining first-hand the extreme positive power of self-compassion at work. Dr. Lina George, my former doctoral student and CHRO of Grady Hospital in Atlanta, won me over. She wanted to study self-compassion. I begrudgingly agreed with some caveats: Convince me that self-compassion is (1) a worthy topic of study in organizational psychology and (2) offers unique insight into our understanding of job performance AND burnout. Dr. George was up to the task.

I am pleased to share some highlights from our research. Examining over 1000 individuals, we:

1. Operationalized self-compassion in the workplace

2. Created a valid, useful, and practical measure of work self-compassion

3. Discovered that work self-compassion is unique from other important individual characteristics in the workplace

4. Demonstrated that work self-compassion uniquely explains job performance and job burnout

5. Explained why and how the H-Factor relates to performance and well-being – through work self-compassion

So what? Well, companies are beginning to hire employees based upon the H-Factor of personality – having employees that are honest & humble has long-term positive effects. Turns out the reason why is that honest and humble people are much more self-compassionate. Self-compassion promotes a positive mindset, leading to increased resiliency, which in turn allows people to thrive, perform at a high level, and have a happy and healthy outlook at work (and home). One reason: self-compassion reduces cortisol levels, a hormone largely responsible for stress. Lower levels of it can be a very good thing, my friends.

Now, couple this with the work by Jane Dutton at Michigan on compassion for others, and we are beginning to understand how individual employees can help contribute to the creation of a truly caring organization. Self before others; not others before self—akin to putting your oxygen mask on before helping others do so in airplane emergency procedures. Work on self-compassion first, and then you will have more resources to help others.

Leaders that engage in self-compassion can create a contagion effect such that team members will "catch" the self-compassion bug and spread it to others, thereby promoting compassion. Not sure about you, but this is one condition I would certainly like to catch!

One of the most awkward four-letter words on the planet is love. Love conquers all, love is old magic, love is blind, love will win out… Love – it makes people more uncomfortable than foul-mouthed derogatory four-letter words. It is true: all we need is love. But we first need to direct our love internally via self-compassion.

Get to work on your self-compassion with the "The Self-Compassion Break':

1. Pause, take a deep breath, recognize and vocalize that you are in a moment of failure/struggle and failure/struggle is simply a part of work.

2. Next, puts both hands over your heart, feeling your heartbeat and rhythmic rising and falling of the chest from breathing, and repeat: “May I be kind to myself and may I live with ease.”

Don’t be bashful—it works. Give it a try, and help yourself and others.

For further exploration, take a look at Dr. Neff’s work. Some really wonderful resources can be found on her site, and her research is bedrock solid.