Science of Compassion

Science of Compassion

tumblr mluhsfYTZH1rj57f8o1 500Article by James Doty, MD.

Most of us spend the majority of our time at work where it can be a source of purpose and inspiration. Yet, for many work can be the place at which they are the most stressed and least happy. In fact, work is often considered a ruthless cut-throat environment with little if any compassion.

In prior posts, I have commented on the epidemic of loneliness, isolation, and depression felt by many in our modern and ever more technologically sophisticated society. The effects of this epidemic are now being felt in the business community and affecting the bottom line in a significant way. Can you imagine that it is estimated that $2-300B... yes, billions of dollars are lost as a result of this reality.

A great part of the problem is the fact that humans have not yet evolved to live in this constantly changing, technologically sophisticated world. Our DNA has not significantly changed in over 200,000 years. In contrast, cities have only existed for 5,000 years and it was only 10,000 years ago that the primary survival strategy of our species was as hunter-gatherers in groups of 10-50. What does this mean? Initially within these nuclear family units and small groups, nurture and care were absolute requirements for survival. Further, when presented with a threat, the primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, responded with the flight or fight mechanism releasing hormones that were advantageous in such situations. Unfortunately in modern society due to the constant bombardment of information and the recurrence of situations that lead to uncertainty, this mechanism has been hijacked. This has resulted in individuals whose brains process these situations as threats leading to a release of hormones that are deleterious long term. In other words, the results are stress and fear. Don't get me wrong, stress and fear are important parts of our lives and, in the right amounts, enhance our survival, function, and growth.

Stress can be good, but...
It is when normal stress (eustress) becomes negative and chronic stress (distress) that it leads to the release of hormones that have a deleterious effect on mental and physical health. Positive stress (eustress) enhances cognitive ability and performance. It is controlled, irregular, and not overwhelming. As described by"" whereby one is completely absorbed in the present moment, leading to increased efficiency and productivity giving one a competitive edge.

Why Chronic Stress is Bad for Work
What happens when stress invades the workplace? Individuals who are chronically distressed, when surveyed, describe a sense of fear and anxiety. Distress may lead to worry or rumination on the part of the employee because of fear that they might be fired or reprimanded. Additionally, distressed employees feel that they cannot trust their managers or the company. A sense that there is no open communication. Oftentimes, chronically distressed employees state that they have no sense of control of their work, that they are overworked, and that their work is not meaningful. Not only is the amygdala hijacked, but also the area in the frontal lobe associated with what is called executive control. This area regulates decision-making, judgment, planning, and moral reasoning. As a result of its dysfunction, decision-making can become impulsive or shortsighted resulting in difficulty responding to new information and further decreased effectiveness. Such behavior can then lead to a vicious cycle of increasing anxiety, stress and resultant depression.

Stress is now pandemic in the workplace with three out of four employees stating that they have excessive stress at work. Not only is this manifested by a marked increase in absenteeism, but also in an epidemic of presenteeism, as well, which is the all-too-frequent situation where an employee comes to work but is ineffective and non-productive. In fact, in one survey, 52% of employees stated that excessive stress led them to decline a promotion, look for a new job, or leave their job. This situation leads to a huge increase in employee turnover as well as all the associated costs of replacing a worker.

Stress Undermines Work Performance and Commitment
Studies have shown that excessive stress leads to bias in decision-making affecting employees' and managers' abilities to respond appropriately to important tasks. Chronic stress weakens cognitive skills and performance. One study shows that employees themselves know this, with, 51% stating that when stressed they are significantly less productive. A third of employees (33%) acknowledge that stress leads to mistakes, lost focus, and a feeling of being overworked.

Stress and Job Loyalty 
When one is dissatisfied in their job they have low levels of organizational commitment. Organizational commitment is strongly correlated with job performance quality. In fact, stress manifested by a decrease in job satisfaction is also strongly correlated with unethical decision-making. This makes sense; if employees feel they are chronically stressed due to their work, why would they feel loyalty toward it? Numerous examples illustrate the costs of unethical decision-making by unhappy employees, most of which are borne by the employer.

Stress Increases Company Health Care Costs
There is a 46% increase in healthcare costs associated with workplace stress. Mental health conditions include headache, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and deterioration in personal relationships, and physical disorders include increased risk for heart attack and sudden cardiac death, high blood pressure, and stroke. Less obvious are those associated with mind-body disconnects including gastro-intestinal disorders such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome in addition to back and neck pain, as well as other non-specific pain complaints. All of these factors of stress in the workplace costs corporations approximately $7,500 per employee by one estimate.

Where do we go from here?
There is a critical need to address the problem of workplace stress. But, how does one respond to the manager or CEO who feels that by creating an environment of maximal stress this leads to maximal performance? First of all, the facts speak for themselves. While many quote Darwin that it is survival of the fittest and most ruthless, numerous studies have now shown that ruthlessness may result in short term benefit but in regard to species survival long-term, it is survival of the kindest and most cooperative. We need only exam the last few years of press clipping where we see that such behavior has almost destroyed our economy and society as we know it to appreciate this reality. Clearly, unless we can address this epidemic the cost to business will only increase further jeopardizing our economy. This cost of this problem is now being embraced by the business community. In fact, the Academy of Management Review devoted its October 2012 issue to this topic. In my next blog, I will discuss solutions based on neuroscience, psychology and the latest empiric research.

STRESSeffectPart II
In my previous blog regarding stress in the workplace, I discussed the deleterious effects of stress on job performance and health. But how can this be done? Clearly, the solution is bringing into balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. By increasing the tone of the parasympathetic nervous system and decreasing the tone of the sympathetic nervous system, we are brought into true balance. This is done through compassion.

In a compassionate workplace, employees are fulfilled, committed, and engaged, leading to maximal productivity. While individual employees can use a variety of techniques to decrease the effects of stress at work, ultimately employers must also create the right job environments that offer challenging jobs with attainable goals that result in the right amount of stress without excessive fear or overwork on a chronic basis.

How do we get there?

Top-Down Approach: Addressing Stress at the Organizational Level

  • Organizations need managers and leaders who create a sense of trust, whereby the employees can rely on the word of supervisors and interact with them in a direct, straightforward manner. Employees must recognize that companies can have setbacks requiring change in responsibilities or downsizing. It is dealing honestly and in a forthright fashion that separates the ethically responsible well-managed company from the mismanaged one. And the latter pays a significant price.

  • Employees must feel that they are valued, respected, and recognized as an important part of the company regardless of their role. Participation in decision making also matters. Employees, like all humans, need to have a sense of being in some control of their environment. Of course none of us have complete control, but being given some decision-making responsibilities has a huge impact in decreasing stress, increasing performance, and ultimately improving life satisfaction.

  • A sense of contribution to something larger than oneself is an essential aspect of life satisfaction. Creating a work environment where one feels they are impacting the world in a positive way is one solution. Organizations can create a sense of value by linking employees to those who use or benefit from their products. Beyond the job itself, another way to bolster a sense of contribution is to support activities that support the community where the company is located or causes that have a positive impact on society. Multiple studieshave demonstrated the power of such programs to give meaning to employees and in doing so to increase their loyalty to their employer and to create an overall sense of life purpose while also decreasing stress.

  • Finally, a radical reconsideration of the types of goals that human work espouses and the rewards it offers have to be reconsidered. Economic systems and market logic may not be applicable to every human decision, and radical transparency may help people better understand their values, and live lives consistent with these values. Furthermore, employees should consider their personality and strengths before aspiring to a position that does not suit their disposition. This is critical to engender environments where employees flourish at work. Seeking increase in compensation and more important titles while offering certain benefits can also create situations that increase stress and decrease work performance. Employees must also recognize that success is not necessarily related to income or title.

Bottom-Up Approach: Addressing Stress at the Individual Level

I have just emphasized how a top-down approach can work to create employee well-being: now let's briefly discuss how a bottom-up approach can also be effective.


One intervention that is increasing in popularity is mindfulness meditation. Meditation that emphasizes non-judgmental awareness of the present moment while decreasing fear and anxiety leading to increasing tone of the parasympathetic nervous system. A key aspect of any such practice is the development of self-compassion, which decreases self-criticism and thus promotes a sense of well-being. Kristin Neff has been at the forefront of this work.

Emotional Intelligence

The work of Daniel Goleman and others has made the importance of emotional intelligence (EI) evident. It not only emphasizes knowledge of one's internal emotional states, but also self-regulation to allow for better executive function including impulse control and thoughtful reasoning. Not only does EI lead to increased intra-personal skills but also interpersonal skills like empathy and improved awareness of others. This can lead to increased adeptness at responding to others in a positive way. EI research has demonstrated that when such techniques are implemented there is an increase in work performance, happiness and contentment, along with improved leadership skills. In fact, one study demonstrates that emotional competencies are twice as important in regard to success in the workplace as pure intellect and occupational expertise.

To highlight the ever-increasing interest in the business world regarding compassion in the workplace as a method of decreasing stress and increasing productivity, the Academy of Management Review devoted its October 2012 issue to this topic.

Published by permission from Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE).

James R. Doty, M.D. is Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University School of Medicine and Founder and Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education ( at Stanford University. The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, of which His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the founding benefactor, aims to support rigorous research on compassion. Dr. Doty collaborates with scientists from a number of disciplines examining the neural bases for compassion and altruism. In addition, Dr. Doty is an inventor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. As a philanthropist, he supports a number of charitable organizations focused on peace and healthcare throughout the world. Additionally, he supports a variety of research initiatives and has provided scholarships and endowed chairs at multiple universities. He serves on the board of a number of non-profit organizations including as Chairman of the Dalai Lama Foundation and is on the International Advisory Board of the Council of the Parliament of the World's Religions.


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