Making the case for love at work

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James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

The main focus of any long-term care operation is usually the residents' wants and needs. Caregivers typically dole out huge helpings of personal emotional energy along the way. But they might be getting it wrong, researchers say.

Wrong in the sense that they should not be focusing solely on residents. They need to concentrate on their colleagues as well, workplace investigators say.

In brief, employees need to share their love with the people who share their cubicle, nurse station or office. And, no, that sentence does not contain a typo.

The results of promoting more emotional bonds will not be costly sexual harassment lawsuits. On the contrary. The gain will be improved employee productivity — and resident outcomes.

So say Sigal G. Barsade of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and Olivia A. O'Neill of the School of Management at George Mason University. Their longitudinal study of workplace relations and management skills, “What's love got to do with it? The influence of a culture of companionate love” applies to workers across a variety of industries.

What struck me when I first read about the study last week was that the investigators did their initial research in a long-term care setting. Findings will soon be published in Administrative Science Quarterly.

“The more love co-workers feel at work, the more engaged they are,” the researchers wrote. “It may not be surprising that those who perceive greater affection and caring from their colleagues perform better, but few managers focus on building an emotional culture. That's a mistake.”

Let's get one thing clear: The love referred to in these instances is “companionate love,” not nearly the same as the more intense romantic love. Warmth, connection and affection are the themes of the day, rather than passion.

Barsade and O'Neill surveyed 185 employees at a large, unnamed long-term care facility and hospital in the Northeast. They also gathered responses from more than 100 residents and 42 resident family members.

The results were unmistakable. Employees who felt they were part of a loving, caring work culture relayed higher levels of satisfaction. These employees were absent from work less often. Teamwork was also more evident in those places.

In a related finding, the researches also noticed that in places with stronger staff empathy, there were residents with higher levels of satisfaction, better mood, and higher quality of life self-ratings. There were also fewer trips to the emergency department.

A follow-up study of more than 3,200 employees across seven different industries produced the same results. In other words, the long-term care setting wasn't just some one-off but rather an indicator of workplaces in general.

How does one know if a workplace has a culture of companionate love? It would have coworkers collaborating each day, protecting one another's feelings, encouraging one another, showing care and affection, consoling when the occasion warrants. This would not happen among just a few employees but rather be evident throughout the staff. Managers would look for ways to encourage such behavior and reinforce fondness among teammates.

Barsade and O'Neill acknowledge that group hugs and warm, fuzzy gestures aren't for everyone. But they do leave three recommendations for managers to build “an emotional culture of companionate love.”

They include:

• Going beyond promoting just a “cognitive culture” at work, which tends to focus on achieving “results” or innovation. Invest in fostering a richer emotional culture, based on things such as joy and pride.

• Realizing that a manager's mood creates “a cultural blueprint” for his or her group. In other words, be very aware of what your emotions say to your employees, each and every day.

• Reconsidering company policies as to how they can nurture caring and compassion among staff members. Many creative examples could be cited, such as a big-company CEO who asked that he be notified within 48 hours of any employee's loved one dying.

As with the creation of any new cultural entity, it is not what happens just every now and then, or when investigators are watching. Rather, it is what happens day in, day out. And what happens when it comes to sharing gestures of kindness and empathy among one another at work.

Learn more about ways to create satisfied, fulfilled staff in the latest post from McKnight's blogger Eleanor Feldman-Barbera, Ph.D. In "The World According to Dr. El," the well-known long-term care psychologist delves into employee recognition programs that work.


James M. Berklan is Editor at McKnight's.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editor's Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor on Monday and Friday; Staff Writer Tim Mullaney on Tuesday, Editor James M. Berklan on Wednesday and Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman on Thursday.

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