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Illustration of two helping hands reaching out to eachother.

Illustration of two helping hands reaching out to eachother.

Distressed At Work? These Colleagues Will Likely Be The Most Compassionate

And the answer may surprise you

If you’re feeling more distressed at work lately, you’re not alone, says assistant professor of management
Hooria Jazaieri, an expert on individual reputation and emotions in the workplace. Employees are experiencing distress at unprecedented rates, says Jazaieri, pointing to a 2023 Gallup report on the “State of the Global Workplace” that found 44 percent of people interviewed reported work as a major stressor in their lives. Causes range from increased hours or urgency, to threats of layoffs or reduced hours, to interpersonal conflicts, bullying, or abusive supervision. 

While it may be an inescapable part of organizational life, Jazaieri says one antidote to distress can often be found in compassionate co-workers. But which ones would be the most helpful? 

In a new study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Jazaieri and management professors Reut Livne-Tarandach of Manhattan College and Veronica Caridad Rabelo of San Francisco State University say contrary to what you might think, colleagues who haven’t experienced your same workplace distress are better sounding boards.

We spoke to with Jazaieri to learn a little more about why this might be the case.

What inspired you and your colleagues to study this aspect of workplace compassion? 

Before this study, a lot of the compassion literature took one perspective: Either from the person who is suffering, or from the person who is trying to provide help. Our research looked at both parties, and by looking at both the sufferer and the responder, we were able to see a mismatch. 

Our research shows how responders feel a really high self-efficacy in terms of their ability to help. They’ll say, “I think I’m being helpful; I think that I’m giving you good advice.” But when we ask the sufferer how helpful that person was in terms of actually helping with their distress, it turns out the responders’ perception of their behaviors didn’t align with the sufferers’ actual experience. It turns out, people who have gone through similar distress experiences are wanting to be helpful and alleviate others’ suffering, and yet, they’re ineffective at doing that.

So sufferers should challenge the axiom, “it takes one to know one”?

Right. Even though people will often think, “If this colleague has been there before, then surely they will understand, and if they’ve been successful in overcoming that challenge or difficulty, they will be able to give me great advice and suggestions to help guide me forward.” But what we found is that if we want to share our distress with others, we should be a bit more discerning about who we share our suffering with.

For the person who is suffering, the lesson is to think carefully about who you are going to for support at work. It’s not necessarily someone who has “been there” who is going to be the most compassionate to us, which is pretty counterintuitive, right?

What other benefits occur when we turn to someone less obvious, at least when it comes to seeking compassion? 

For the sufferers, it’s inviting them to really broaden their perspective in terms of the people they can go to for support. People with different types of distress experiences are actually the most equipped to help because they don’t have the same exact experience to draw upon. So there’s less likelihood of them being self-focus (“Let me tell you about the time when that happened to me…”). They’re also less likely to diminish or invalidate the sufferer’s experience by saying things like, “You’re being too emotional” or “It’s not that big of a deal.” 

We found that those who had not shared the sufferers’ same distress experiences are more likely to remain present with sufferers’ unique experience rather than making it about their own past experience or invalidating the sufferer.

Some responders may even make it worse for sufferers. How so?

The sufferer’s experience brought back memories from the responders’ prior distress experience, and rather than focusing on the sufferer, the responder often started sharing about their own past experiences of distress, which either invalidated the sufferer’s distress (e.g., “it wasn’t that big of a deal”) or shared painful details from their prior experience that the sufferer never considered before.

For example, if I’m distressed about being laid off from my job and then I go to you because you were laid off last year but then you start telling me about how, as a result of being laid off last year, you then had to move, and your kid had to change schools. So now, all of a sudden I’m no longer just distressed about my layoff, I’m now thinking about the potential moving expenses, and my kids being upset with me, and so on. 

The study uses a concept called “hot-cold empathy gap.” What is that?

When the responder—the person who is trying to provide help—is talking to the sufferer, they’re in a “cold state,” because they’re no longer experiencing distress or suffering. But the sufferer is in a “hot state,” where they’re right in the thick of it. 

So the responder needs to be aware that in this cold state, they may not accurately remember just how hard it was when they were in distress themselves and might be tempted to minimize or invalidate the sufferer’s hot state experience, or start talking about their past experience. Understanding that hot-cold state—and how it influences our memories, emotions, perceptions, and behaviors—offers key insights that can help us be more effective in responding to those who are suffering.

Have you ever experienced this kind of “hot-cold state”? 

College was challenging for me. Despite doing all of the readings, going to all of the lecturers, taking copious notes, and going to office hours, I really struggled in my behavioral neuroscience class. I also really struggled in my 8 a.m. Italian class. And yet, as a professor today, school doesn’t seem all that difficult to me. And so sometimes forget, because I’m now in this cold state, what it was like when I was in that hot state, when I had to get up early (usually walking through the Seattle rain, very different from “Claradise”), and I was studying for hours and hours and hours, and still was doing really poorly on my exams. I even had an Italian tutor, and that didn’t seem to help things. As they say in Italian, “non capisco!” (“I don't understand!”)

But we forget that the way we view reality today is through this different lens—in my cold state—which is vastly different from the way I experienced it months ago or years ago, when I was in that hot state. We have to remember that our cold state is just a different lens of viewing the world and not necessarily representative of what it was like when we were in our hot state.

You teach your students about Golden Rule and the Platinum Rule. Could you tell us a little bit about the difference between the two?

As we all know, the golden rule is to treat others the way that you would like to be treated. And that’s really based on our own values and preferences and desires. The platinum rule says rather than treating others the way that you want to be treated, treat others the way that they want to be treated. This requires getting to know the people around us, asking questions, and responding in a way that can help them feel cared for. Keeping this context in mind will help responders be more effective in responding to the unique needs of those who are suffering. 

Lots of people are probably hesitant to confide in their colleagues. How might this study change their minds?

Well, certainly one way to read these findings is to say, “Gosh. Maybe I should just keep it to myself and not share my distress with anyone.” But given the fact that we spend one-third of our lives at work, I think that would be a great disservice. Trying to suppress emotions can also have adverse consequences for our health and well-being, as well as on our relationships. So, while you could go to someone in human resources, or talk to a licensed therapist, for many of us, it’s nice to be able to talk to someone across the hall, someone who is also in the profession, for support during those difficult times.


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