See, Hear, Feel

EP69: Dr. Yu Tse Heng on self-compassion and humanizing the workplace

July 05, 2023 Professor Christine J Ko, MD/Dr. Yu Tse Heng Season 1 Episode 69
See, Hear, Feel
EP69: Dr. Yu Tse Heng on self-compassion and humanizing the workplace
Show Notes Transcript

It is much easier for us to have compassion for others as compared to self-compassion. Dr. Yu Tse Heng studies self-compassion and humannizing the workplace, and her research supports that self-compassion helps promote other compassion, and vice versa. Speaking with Yu Tse has made me even more willing to be self-compassionate; maybe the same will be the case for listeners. Dr. Yu Tse Heng, PhD is an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce. She received her Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the University of Washington Foster School of Business. Her research program uncovers ways in which we can humanize the workplace by acknowledging, appreciating, and wherever possible, harnessing employees' full humanity. She has been awarded the William H. Newman All-Academy Best Dissertation Award (2022) and was runner-up for the Organization Science/INFORMS Dissertation Proposal Competition (2020). Yu Tse's popular press writing has been published in Harvard Business Review and Harvard Business Publishing (Education). Her work has also been featured in media outlets such as The New York Times, The Financial Times, and CNBC Make It.

[00:00:00] Christine Ko: Welcome back to SEE HEAR FEEL. Today I have the pleasure of having Dr. Yu Tse Heng on the podcast. Dr. Yu Tse Heng, PhD is an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce. She received her PhD in Organizational Behavior from the University of Washington Foster School of Business. Her research program uncovers ways in which we can humanize the workplace by acknowledging, appreciating, and, wherever possible, harnessing employees’ full humanity. She has been awarded the William H. Newman All Academy Best Dissertation Award in 2022 and was runner up for the Organization Science/ INFORMS dissertation proposal competition in 2020. Dr. Yu Tse Heng's popular press writing has been published in the Harvard Business Review, as well as the Harvard Business Publishing (Education) journal. Her work has also been featured in media outlets such as The New York Times, the Financial Times, and CNBC Make It. Welcome to Yu Tse. 

[00:01:03] Yu Tse Heng: Hey, Christine, I'm glad to be here. 

[00:01:06] Christine Ko: Thank you for being here. Do you mind sharing a short, personal anecdote about yourself? 

[00:01:12] Yu Tse Heng: What I love about doing research is that we get to answer questions that we're fascinated about. I came from this place where I thought self-compassion was super important and that was what I was really interested in studying when I got into grad school. Kira Schabram, she was the first professor that I worked with on this topic. She's someone who works with animals. She fosters dogs. So she's really excited about compassion. And she was really skeptical of self-compassion. Through that whole experience of us publishing together, we got a better understanding that both of us really value compassion, both towards other people and ourselves.

[00:01:43] Christine Ko: Yes. When she first started working on the project with you, she really didn't think that it was a good project. Yeah. Isn't that the best kind of project in a way that really actually changes our own minds about something. 

[00:02:00] Yu Tse Heng: Yeah, totally. It was really fun to work on it. We had a lot of debates, constructive ones. We got results to suggest that we were both right. Both compassion and self compassion helped us in different ways. 

[00:02:10] Christine Ko: Yeah, because I think she was saying that she didn't think that self-compassion was important.

[00:02:17] Yu Tse Heng: That's the thing about self-compassion where we think of it as like weakness or we might be seen as needy or people think that we're lazy. Skepticism about self-compassion is not just something that Kira has, but a lot of people have. We're very uncomfortable with being self-compassionate, whereas we're more comfortable with being compassionate towards other people: helping someone out or lending a helping hand to a friend.

[00:02:38] Christine Ko: Why do you think that is? 

[00:02:39] Yu Tse Heng: My guess is a societal thing where we value persevering, doing our best, not giving up. We worry about the backlash when it comes to self-compassion. We worry that our coworkers would judge us or see us as less than or think of us as lazy and so on. Kristen Neff talks about how self-compassion is just this thing that we're so not used to. We just don't know how to do it or we are scared of doing it, both at work and our personal lives.

[00:03:03] Kira Schabram, myself, and a couple of other co-authors, we actually have an ongoing study in a hospital in India, where we are interested in looking at how self-compassion is perceived by other people in a workplace. So, if you're self-compassionate at work, then how do people look at you? Are they gonna judge you? Are our lay beliefs about self-compassion really true? Our initial findings is that that's not the case. So if you're self-compassionate to yourself, what happens is that people are actually given more. There's this clearance for other people to care for you, right?

[00:03:34] So when you're kind to ourselves, we give people a signal that we're also open to their compassion. We appear to be more receptive to compassion, allowing people to help us. And people are more likely to help us in that way because they get this signal that, hey, we're open to this. And we are also not seen as needy. Contrary to this, another benefit of self-compassion in that people have a clearer understanding of what you want.

[00:03:56] Because when we're suffering, it's not that easy to get a sense of whether we should cross this line to help our coworker. This person might be going through a hard time, but then there is also all of these professional boundaries. When we're self-compassionate it gives people a stronger signal that, Hey, we're open to this. Please help me. I would really appreciate your help. 

[00:04:15] Christine Ko: Can you define suffering?

[00:04:17] Yu Tse Heng: Suffering is used synonymously with pain; we use this term broadly. Essentially suffering is things that we're going through that is difficult and hard for us. So this could be work forms of suffering: failing at one's job, failing to get a promotion you really wanted, not meeting a goal, feeling burnt out at work. And then there's also suffering related to personal lives: grief from losing a loved one, family conflict, parental; guilt that we are experiencing from having a hard time managing work and life and so on.

[00:04:49] Christine Ko: Can you talk a little bit about self-compassion versus other compassion and what the difference is? 

[00:04:57] Yu Tse Heng: I can first start off with other compassion towards other people, because I think it's more intuitive to us. Other compassion is this three step process of us noticing another person suffering, empathizing, and then acting in ways to alleviate this person's suffering.

[00:05:12] So for example, you could see that coworkers just going through a divorce, having a really hard time. You empathize, and you act in ways to alleviate their suffering by listening, giving them a hug, and so on. Self-compassion is something we are less comfortable with, and we are more awkward about. But it really is compassion, that we usually direct outwards, inwards, right? So it's about us giving ourself that compassion that we so regularly give other people, right? So self-compassion is also this three step process of us first noticing our own suffering. Really mindfully aware that we're going through hard times. It's very painful. It's about us also understanding this idea of common humanity. So, we are going through a hard time. We're dealing with this issue, but everyone else also has these issues that they have to deal with from time to time. The last part of self-compassion is really self-kindness, which is us acting in ways to alleviate our own suffering, right? So an example could be that here I went to work today and had a really hard time dealing with a patient, and I feel like I didn't do well enough. And self-compassion will mean that, Hey I'm gonna acknowledge that I'm having these negative feelings. I'm not gonna over-identify with them. I'm going to remind myself that this is not something that only I experience. This is something that everyone else goes through from time to time as well. It's just the nature of the job. Then the final step is to really act in ways to alleviate your suffering, pain, guilt and so on. That could be engaging in a self-care activity that you enjoy. It could be going swimming, gardening, something that fuels your cup, right? 

[00:06:39] Christine Ko: Yeah. I thought it was interesting because Kira Schabram told me that you've both found that working that muscle of compassion; it's the same muscle, self-compassion and other compassion. It's the same thing actually. 

[00:06:56] Yu Tse Heng: Being kind to other people seems easier or seems more intuitive, just because we have done it more often. Self-compassion is something that's harder for people to do just because it's something that people have not really thought about for a long time. The good thing about these two things, these two different constructs and these two exercises or approaches, is that when you try to be better at one, you tend to be better at the other. 

[00:07:18] Christine Ko: Maybe it will incentivize people to have self-compassion, knowing that will help them be more compassionate to others.

[00:07:26] Yu Tse Heng: When we take the time to notice, to get attuned to other people's feelings, and to empathize, and to act, we are using the same muscles that we can also use towards ourselves. So that's really just a focus kind of thing. 

[00:07:38] Christine Ko: One of the hardest things with other compassion is that noticing component, that first step that you mentioned. Sometimes we're too busy to notice, but sometimes we notice, but especially in the workplace setting, but even in home life, depending on what your home life is like, you're like, I shouldn't pry. You actually think you might be being unkind rather than compassionate to bring something up that might be sensitive for the other person. 

[00:08:02] Yu Tse Heng: Totally. Even when you notice someone's going through a hard time, you might not know what you should do to help. For example, my dissertation was on grief in the workplace. Coworkers who lost loved one and return to work. Coworkers weren't sure what to do. So sometimes they just didn't do anything because they didn't know what to do. It was awkward. Other times, some coworkers reached out to help, but that was not something they wanted. And then there also groups of people who lost loved ones who went back to work, and they really wanted other people's support and they didn't get that. So it's really hard to navigate all these nuances.

[00:08:35] Christine Ko: Everyone's so different. Maybe that's what you were touching on when you were saying before to have self-compassion. You are better connecting with yourself and understanding your own self and what you might need. Why is it bad to ignore or hide sort of personal lives or events in the workplace or like in a doctor patient interaction? 

[00:08:56] Yu Tse Heng: I don't think it's bad per se, but there's just a lot of missed opportunities to get to know someone and to connect to someone at a deeper level. For the most part, people want to be compassionate and want to be kind. Some of these people are people that you see for longer hours of time than you see your family. 

[00:09:13] Christine Ko: I feel like you're bringing it back to compassion, that people in general want to show compassion, and it makes you feel good to show compassion. It probably also makes the person receiving compassion feel good to receive that compassion. 

[00:09:27] Yu Tse Heng: One thing about compassion is that it doesn't really have to take a lot of effort, like humanizing the workplace. It doesn't have to be a 30-minute session with someone. It could simply be a hug or just being present. And I think the same goes for self-compassion where you don't have to go for a self-compassion, like, eight-week mindfulness course or something like that to be self-compassionate. It could just be like a five-minute mindfulness meditation, just taking the time to pause and to be kind to ourselves and to other people.

[00:09:57] Christine Ko: I wanted to ask you what it means to you to humanize the healthcare workplace. 

[00:10:03] Yu Tse Heng: Let's first unpack what humanizing the workplace means, right? So when we think about like in the hospitals, there are doctors, nurses, technicians, janitors, and so on. We see our coworkers on a day-to-day basis, and we work with them towards different goals. It makes perfect sense to know our coworkers in terms of their roles or their responsibilities, right? What do you know about these coworkers who you work with, day in, day out. How much do you know about them outside of their work? Most of us, we do know some of our coworkers, but at the same time, more often than not, we actually don't know much about them at all. That's a missed opportunity to connect at a deeper level, to build positive connections with them.

[00:10:41] Christine Ko: Why do you think we don't? It's just, we're too busy? 

[00:10:44] Yu Tse Heng: One of the biggest barriers to humanizing the workplace: it's really hectic; super busy. People are overworked, burnt out, and so the last thing on their minds is to connect at a deeper level with someone else because they're already rushing to finish their work and then get home for other duties that they have.

[00:11:00] Christine Ko: Is there anything we can do about it to be better? 

[00:11:05] Yu Tse Heng: I think it's more of a systematic thing first. Where, if possible, in ideal situation, there'll be more workers. But at the same time, we know that there's a shortage of healthcare workers. So, at the same time, there's a lot of small opportunities to connect one-on-one with coworkers that don't necessarily take a lot of time, a simple check-in. Small actions can add up. It doesn't mean that we have to spend 30 minutes chatting with coffee. It could just be a short conversation along the hallway, and that could make a big difference if we keep doing it intentionally.

[00:11:36] Christine Ko: Yeah. I read recently an article on microconnection. [ Mm-hmm.] I think that was the term.

[00:11:43] Yu Tse Heng: Yeah. It's just about being intentional, to stop for a moment to think about, Hey, how's this person really doing and how can I connect with that person? Goes back to this idea of why we should humanize the workplace if we can. Because all of these small, positive interactions or micro interactions we have with other people give us some insight into who they are as a person and what they might need from us in the long run or when something happens, something bad happens. And that's when we get all of these clues to figure out how we can best help this person as compared to a situation where we know nothing about this person at all, except for the fact that they are going through a hard time and we don't know what we can do to best help them.

[00:12:20] I think the benefit of self and other compassion is to be aware of our suffering and being able to alleviate it in small ways. We're in a pretty fast paced society where we're always on the go, what's next? Kind of mindset. It's easy for us to just not think about suffering or just overlook it until it's too late where things bubble up, and it's hard to deal with it at that point. 

[00:12:41] Christine Ko: Yeah. I am trying to learn how to better connect in a micro moment. But yeah, it's hard. 

[00:12:50] Yu Tse Heng: It is hard. The whole idea is that we don't have enough time. That's this idea of time famine. And so how do we make use of the little amount of time that we have to build these positive connections?

[00:13:00] Christine Ko: Yeah. Okay. Cool. Do you have any final thoughts? 

[00:13:05] Yu Tse Heng: When I think about humanizing the workplace, and think about the pandemic that has just happened, I think one silver lining of the pandemic is that we are more aware and more cognizant about the importance of treating employees and people as humans, which sounds really obvious. But, at the same time, we are realizing that during the pandemic, a lot of people, especially healthcare workers, were working in very undesirable conditions. There's a lot of burnout. There was a lot of pain in the room. And the pandemic was how I realized that employee wellness, employee mental health: these things are undeniably important. Because of the pandemic and because of this heightened suffering during that time, my sense is that there's a lot of conversations now about humanizing the workplace in ways that I think are very hopeful and promising. There's more conversation about just people as full human beings. On the one hand, the pandemic was horrible, but at the same time, it has opened up these conversations in navigating what the future of work might look like. 

[00:14:06] Christine Ko: Thank you so much for being on this. I really appreciate all your insights.

[00:14:11] Yu Tse Heng: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.