Workplace stress is a problem for many people. The majority (79 percent) of people report feeling stress during their workdays. And it doesn’t help that our days are often sandwiched between traffic jams and housework. Stress makes our days less pleasant, and it taxes our minds and bodies in ways that lower our quality of life and make us less effective at our jobs.
One way companies can help reduce team members’ stress is by encouraging more kindness in the workplace. Creating a culture of kindness doesn’t take a big budget or a planning committee. Keep reading to discover six science-backed ways to dispel stress in the workplace and bake kindness into your company’s culture. And first find out why encouraging kindness may help you reduce health issues and absenteeism, increase engagement and productivity, and encourage loyalty.
The science of kindness in the workplace
Before we get into how to spread kindness at your company, let’s talk about the science of kindness. You may be surprised to find that an intangible trait can be measured by science, but studies about kindness date back as far as the 1990s.
These studies reveal that workplace stress is a real and pressing problem. They give organizational leaders specific examples of how to encourage compassion, gratitude, and positivity throughout the day. And they show us just how important it is to wield kindness to reduce stress in the workplace.
The majority (61 percent) of Americans say work is a major stressor in their lives. On an individual level, workers who are stressed suffer from more headaches, insomnia, anxiety, heart disease, depression, back pain, and weakened immune systems. On an organizational level, stressed out workers may translate to higher health care costs, more absenteeism, and lower productivity overall because stress is contagious. In studies, people’s cortisol levels rise when they observe another person under stress.
Research suggests employers who understand the impact of work stress and take steps to support their employees’ happiness enjoy several payoffs in the form of higher job satisfaction, loyalty, engagement, and productivity. One way to convert workplace stress to employee happiness is by developing a culture of kindness. Research suggests doing acts of kindness improves people’s happiness.
Luckily, kindness is contagious. According to one study, those who experience kindness from others pay it forward by 278 percent. Kindness toward others inspires gratitude, which drives team members to be kind to coworkers. With just a few small acts from a handful of employees (for instance, saying thank you more often or sharing compliments), good vibes can radiate throughout a company, and employees may feel the benefits even months later.
While character strengths such as kindness, compassion, and gratitude seem intangible, you can teach them at work. But it takes practice and the choice to exercise kindness like a muscle. Will you be the one to sprinkle the seeds of compassion at your job today?
How to create more kindness at work
It doesn’t take much to start spreading good vibes among your team, across departments, and throughout your entire organization. Here are six low-cost, high-impact, science-supported strategies for baking kindness into your company culture.
1. Build a habit of gratitude
A demonstration of gratitude is both a kindness itself and a response to kindness. It’s what keeps employees paying it forward. But for people who haven’t actively practiced gratitude before, it can be difficult to start. Before gratitude can become part of company culture, it must first be an emotion, then a habit.
You can help develop the habit by supplying your team members with the classic tool of gratitude: the thank-you card. If the team works in a shared space, let staff know that you’ll leave thank-you cards in the break room or another frequented space so workers can drop by and fill one out when they have a minute. Get the ball rolling by filling them out for your team members. Keep a few in your desk for spontaneous use.
If you have remote team members, supply thank-you cards to your employees and share the addresses of teammates’ offices. Or use a free service such as Paperless Post.
2. Recognize what’s important
One form of gratitude comes from leadership: recognition. There are many ways to recognize employees. Raises can be effective, of course, while more public displays of recognition can give the whole staff a buzz.
One study found that when top performers receive recognition in front of their peers, the largest boosts in productivity come from those who aren’t recognized. Consider dedicating meeting time or a Slack channel to shout-outs that recognize team members for everyday contributions.
For bigger accomplishments, consider offering a corporate gift. A paperweight with the company logo or an embossed pen is nice, but the gift will mean a lot more if you get to know the person’s interests and get them something personal.
Finally, well-timed recognition helps companies retain employees. Recognizing employee birthdays and work anniversaries is critical. These so-called epiphany moments are times of reflection for many workers, and they may start updating their resumes if they don’t feel appreciated.
3. Commit to random acts of kindness
Studies suggest that out-of-the blue kindness can be just as effective as regular expressions of gratitude and recognition. One study asked participants to commit random acts of kindness for seven straight days. These acts boosted happiness and wellbeing for both the givers and receivers.
Participants chose a variety of people to receive kindness: friends, family, coworkers, acquaintances, and complete strangers. The positive effects were the same no matter who the recipients were. It turns out, you don’t need to have a relationship with someone for kindness to benefit both of you.
If companywide kindness is your goal, you can build a culture of kindness quickly by encouraging random acts of kindness across departments and shifts. The acts can be as simple as holding the door open for an unfamiliar colleague or sharing a light-hearted meme with a remote teammate.
4. Supply healthy snacks and lunches
Feeding your team can reduce the stress of finding time to prep food between meetings, appointments, and checking off to-dos. This small kindness can make a big difference. In one study, when an employer simply added two pieces of fruit to an employee’s lunch for three weeks, workers’ wellbeing and performance improved.
Study co-author and Associate Professor of Journalism at Penn State, Bu Zhong, Ph.D., said in an interview with Medical News Today that the study proves even small acts of kindness can have a huge impact on company culture: “An ultimate solution to improve worker performance and health could be big pay raises or reduced workloads, but when those solutions aren’t feasible, we found that even small offerings can make a big difference.”
Regular snacks or meals are small prices to pay for healthy workplaces full of happy, hardworking employees who take initiative. Stock your breakroom fridges and cabinets on your own, or use a subscription service to curate the snacks for you. And don’t forget about remote employees—mail them treats or reimburse them for a meal delivery service.
6. Give Honest, Thoughtful Feedback
Giving people feedback isn’t necessarily considered a kindness. But if done well, it can be—even if the feedback you offer is a critique. In her book Radical Candor, Kim Scott debunks the saying, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Her view is that discussing an employee’s weaknesses one-on-one and supporting them in finding a solution shows how much you care about them and their careers. The key is to keep this conversation affirming and constructive.
Don’t forget about positive feedback, too, especially when it’s related to kind behavior. In a study conducted with Finnish teachers, researchers discovered people are nicer when they believe kindness is a character strength they possess.
The takeaway? One of the best ways to boost kindness in your organization is to recognize and compliment kindness when you see it among your coworkers.
One note for remote team members: Consider giving feedback remotely over video chat or phone so they can see sincerity on your face or hear it in your voice. Email and messaging may not give as many clues about your tone and emotion.
7. Lead by Example
As the studies cited above show, small, one-off actions can have a tremendous impact on workplace stress. One of the best ways to encourage kind actions is for leaders to spread kindness. Here are some small ways that anyone can bring kindness to the workplace.
- Start emails with a compliment.
- Smile and greet people (in your building or on chat), whether you know them or not.
- Go out of your way to show a new employee the ropes.
- Connect with colleagues on LinkedIn and give them glowing reviews.
- Point out someone’s strengths at your next meeting.
The only caveat to consider: Start slow. “Try one kindness initiative at a time,” Liz Jazwiec, author of Eat That Cookie! Make Workplace Positivity Pay Off … For Individuals, Teams and Organizations, said in an interview with Reliable Plant magazine. “After all, you wouldn’t want your coworkers to walk in one day and think that you’ve been brainwashed.”
There are many ways to define kindness within your company culture. But if you want to reap the benefits of kindness—including improved mental health, greater productivity, and lower workplace stress—your definition must include action.
Encourage employees to write thank-you notes, share random acts of kindness, and give each other honest, thoughtful feedback. Bake kindness into each day by supplying snacks and lunches. Recognize birthdays, milestones, and achievements. Finally, lead by example. Act with kindness and show gratitude toward others. Remember that kindness is good for both the giver and the receiver. And kindness is contagious, so even small, inexpensive actions can have a huge impact.