Some professional skills are easier to learn than others. Compassion, for example, a life-changing asset when properly understood, is already part of your mental toolkit. That’s because it’s rooted in its own part of the brain. But compassion has been battered by the way we’ve been living over the last few thousand years. In Learning at Work week, learning about the compassionate person we could be starts with discovering who we used to be.   

For ancient people, working from home wasn’t a thing. Caves were damp and mammoths didn’t do Zoom. People weren’t big on social distancing either since they closely relied on each other. Without fur, claws, speed or wings, our big brains were pretty much all we had. We learned to use them in working with each other. Only by working together could we cope with the challenges of daily life such as hunting animals much bigger than us.

Humans learned to be social. And with social responsibilities came compassion. Proof of this is touching, precious artefacts have survived through time to remind us of who we are. For the anthropologist Margaret Mead, an early sign of civilisation was a human thigh bone that was 15,000 years old. The bone had healed. People with broken legs can’t find food or fend for themselves, others have to help them for as long as it takes them to heal.


Antidote to suffering

The demands of survival led to the evolutionary development of compassion, it became one of the neurological systems responsible for regulating emotion. Another system manages threats, while a third is associated with drive and the search for resources. Compassion soothes the brain when it is provoked by these other systems. In his book The Compassionate Mind, psychologist Professor Paul Gilbert, explains how we can manage the brain’s systems by recognising the value of compassion, which he defines as “the sensitivity to suffering in self and others, with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it”. In short, it’s the antidote to suffering and harmfulness.

Gilbert, the founder of compassion-focused therapy, (CFT) told Working Voices that his work addresses the consequences of today’s way of life. He believes that in the past we used to be better at working together than we are today. Children were the collective responsibility of the tribe, as were hunting and gathering food, behaviours glued together by compassion. When we shifted to farming, food became easier to manage, it could be grown and stored. For the first time we had storable wealth.

This was a feature of life that was at odds with the way our brains had developed. We began rowing about who was in charge of the food, arguments usually won by aggressive men. Gilbert believes not much has changed since. Over the last 40 years in particular, modern society has radically drifted beyond the ancient ways of shared responsibility and compassion. Gilbert believes that since the 1980s, greed has convinced people that they are defined by selfishness.


Pursuing perfectionism

Today, modern democracies put party politics above universal progress. Society is characterised by families living in isolation and by individuals prioritising the rewards of work. Survival once depended on mutual assistance, not anymore. Today we are more interested in our own accumulation of wealth.

Our culture is driven by a desire for wealth, it is the goal we learn to aspire to while we’re still at school where we are taught how to go it alone in the world and take responsibility for ourselves. And along the way, social media presents us with a parade of glittering treasures we can buy once we are wealthy. This contributes to what Gilbert calls “an epidemic of elevated perfectionism”, laced with desire for the things we want.

It’s all pretty isolating and its impact on self-identity can be damaging. For example in looking for wealth we meet many hurdles along the way, and yet when we don’t get what we want – a better job, a bigger salary etc – we criticise not the system but ourselves. Compassion for the self is eroded, a process that can lead to depression. This can be masked with the pursuit of objectives at work, and so the cycle continues, which is where compassion-focused therapy (CFT) comes in.

Developed by Gilbert, CFT borrows from a range of psychological methodologies in managing the neurological systems that can lead to anxiety, self-criticism and negative self-perceptions. Through CFT, you can make it harder to hear negative self-talk. Studies have shown that CFT helps people recover from psychosis, reduce the symptoms of depression and self-criticism, and manage eating disorders.


Work/life balance

In a business setting, compassion for others increases empathy, communication and teamwork. Far from happy-clappy smiles, Gilbert says “there’s nothing weak about compassion, it’s probably one of the most courageous of all of our motivational systems because when push comes to shove it means we will sacifice ourselves to help others.”

Compassion in business leads to questions about objectives. Gilbert asks “to what extent are businesses purely focused on profit and shareholder value, and to what extent are they interested in other kinds of values?” Business practices that are mindful of the climate emergency demonstrate compassion for others, so too policies on diversity and inclusion. But Gilbert believes we still have a way to go, “if you look at what’s happened in this pandemic, are we taxing the rich? No. What are we doing, we’re cutting foreign aid… that is just simply callous.”

Gilbert helped to set up the Compassionate Mind Foundation which seeks to promote fairer societies. He says that while many businesses share the Foundation’s agenda, others favour “certain types of personalities, the more psychopathic spectrum of personality”, people who are “disturbed personalities” and yet who are often regarded as examples to follow, for the long hours they work. We need to balance work and life, Gilbert says, working excessive hours a week “is not something to admire, it’s something to be sad about really because it’s a pathology.”

Ulimately, Gilbert believes that we’re moving in the right direction. Change in the UK has been driven by compassion in the past, for example the creation of the NHS or the legalisation of homosexuality. Compassion changes lives. It reflects a time when we had nothing but our ability to depend on each other. And if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s shown us that this dependency continues today.


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