McIntire Professor Yu Tse Heng Explains Why Showing Compassion in the Workplace Matters

Approaching a co-worker dealing with grief is not easy. Heng offers suggestions on how to help.

Yu Tse Heng

By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

It’s a simple gesture, but McIntire Professor Yu Tse Heng says asking a colleague, “Hey, how are you?” can go a long way in the workplace.

Heng, who recently completed her first year teaching in the McIntire School of Commerce, said that “having pockets of interactions on a daily basis can help build a stronger relationship with your co-workers.”

Those interactions, and stronger relationships, could help when a co-worker returns to the office after the loss of a loved one and you’re trying to learn how you might best be there for them, she said.

“It’s about building that capacity for compassion when the need arises,” Heng said. “That way, we know our co-workers at a deeper level such that we can better figure out how to best support them. Because most of the time, if you’re grieving, if you’ve experienced a huge loss, you don’t necessarily know what you want in terms of support.

“In fact, sometimes offering support without their co-worker asking could be helpful to them. Whereas, on the other hand, it is also possible for a co-worker to prefer self-reliance – in such cases, receiving help can be threatening or unwanted, at least at that particular point in time,” she said. “Ultimately, it’s about trying to establish that compassionate culture ahead of time. That’s really going to facilitate a more effective and desirable process of offering and receiving compassion.”

Heng recently collaborated with Ryan Fehr from the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business on a research project that dove into the benefits of building a compassionate workplace. She’s also written an award-winning dissertation, “The Grief-Work Interface: How Employees Navigate Grief and Work Following the Loss of a Loved One.”

UVA Today caught up with Heng to learn about the ways we can humanize the work environment.

Q. Why is compassion in the workplace so important?

A. I think, as humans, all of us experience pain and suffering. We might not necessarily share that with our co-workers, but all of us are going through something at some point – it could be grief, it could be loss, conflict, divorce, all sorts of things.

So, when we go to the workplace, we tend to also bring this with us. It’s not as if all personal and all work boundaries are separate; they tend to be intertwined. And that recognition is very important.

I do research on compassion in the workplace because I think it’s very important to see employees not just as workers or people who contribute to profit the bottom line, but people who are full human beings.

Everyone’s going through something, so it’s important to really be kind to our co-workers and be kind to ourselves.

Q. What are some ways people can show compassion at work?

A. At work, and in general, we should strive to be kind to others. We never know the battles that others are fighting, since we seldom share our problems publicly.

Compassion involves noticing and paying attention to how our co-workers are doing, empathizing with them and their struggles, and acting in ways to alleviate their suffering. It doesn’t have to be anything time- or effort-intensive. It could simply be a quick check-in or taking some time to provide a co-worker with a listening ear.

Just five minutes can really change someone’s day. And the science shows that when you’re compassionate to someone else, that person benefits because they feel like, “Hey, I’m valued and seen by someone else.” The science also shows that if you provide compassion to someone else, you benefit because you feel like a good person and a good colleague.

Q. How can those individual interactions spread positively throughout a workplace?

A. If everyone’s compassionate in the workplace, then organizations thrive, too, because research shows that such organizations have a stronger collective capacity for healing. They have people who are less likely to leave the workplace; they tend to be more committed; and they tend to collaborate with one another.

Compassion can be contagious. So, just us doing something small, like just checking on someone, can encourage someone else to do the same based on the reciprocity effect. If our leader is someone who’s compassionate, then it’s going to encourage us to also follow the role model. And so, if all of us just [show] a little bit of compassion, both to other people and also to ourselves, then it has the power to slowly change an organization’s culture.

Q. Based on your research, what is the best way to approach a co-worker dealing with grief?

A. For my dissertation, I interviewed folks, and I talked with them in depth about the experience. And I found that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to grief. Everyone grieves differently, and the kind of support that they need is different.

For some people I’ve talked with, they were like, “I really appreciated my colleague reaching out to me and checking in on me.” And then there’s another group of people who were like, “I’d rather be left alone. I separate my work and my life, and I’d rather people not talk about my grief because it brings up a lot of negative emotions when I’m trying to focus on work.”

There’s a lot of different ways that people cope with grief, and that can also change across time. Like, immediately after you’ve lost someone, the way that you want to be supported can be different from the way that you want to be supported after some time has passed.

So the idea here is that when someone goes through a difficult loss, such as losing a loved one, you’d want to try your best to tune in to how your co-worker is feeling, be aware that this might change over time, and tailor your approach to that person. We might get it wrong at times, but I think it is important to be intentional in our efforts to be there for them.

Q. How have you applied your own research now into your workplace?

A. I try to check in with my students and co-workers from time to time, especially recently with the pandemic and then with the tragedy we had at UVA in November, where all of us were grieving and suffering. I also try to take care of myself and encourage others to do the same, because we need to be well to be there for others.

In such trying times, there is pain, but there’s also so much room for compassion. And I feel like, in my first year here, I have seen a lot of that at UVA. When the shooting happened and we were all grieving, there were students who were going to a candlelight vigil; there was a GoFundMe campaign. Co-workers and students checked in on one another, and the school provided a lot of support. And I think that just shows that UVA is a compassionate organization and there’s a lot of strength and power amid suffering and tragedy.

This story was first published on UVA Today May 26, 2023.

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