Compassion in the workplace…a critical journey to take by John August

Hello everyone,

We are very fortunate this month to have some profound words from John August, Program Director of the Partners Program, Healthcare Labor Relations, at Cornell University, USA since 2013. John’s experience includes that of Executive Director and co-chair of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions from April, 2006 until July, 2013. During this time John helped guide the development of nearly 4,000 Unit Based Teams, which are the foundation of performance improvement at Kaiser Permanente. John speaks to us about compassion in the workplace, and finding ways in which we can manifest that for the greater good. I am very grateful to John sharing this with us.

I would like to begin this blog by stating that all human experience is systemic, including compassion. WE are connected. WE are not an I. As humans we have the opportunity to experience compassion in many ways and in many contexts, and in today’s world of work, perhaps compassion for others and for oneself has particular poignancy given that we are more than ever, connected.

Connectivity and compassion are not always obvious bedfellows. But let me tell you a story of a workplace that helps us to stay connected, and the impact of one person in that workplace showing compassion for others. There are more than 1.5 billion iPhones currently in use in the world.  The growth of ownership and use of this so-called “Smartphone” is staggering since the first iPhones were introduced in 2007.  Apple sales of the device accelerated from zero to 1.5 billion in about ten years!  In fact, the iPhone accounts for 70% of the profits of Apple.  Moreover, Apple is the most highly capitalized company on the planet. Yet..the workplace conditions that exist to ensure this incredible success have little to do with a compassionate workplace. The iPhone is assembled in China, infamously at its FoxConn and other similar gigantic industrial plants.  Workers who are recruited from the countryside and live in faceless dormitories, must go through an hour long security check each day, work at least 60 hours a week, and earn the minimum wage in China (barely).  The parts for the iPhones are manufactured in a world-wide supply chain from plants in poor countries where wages are even lower than in China. The impact on the workforce has gained a notoriety that was given international attention following the death of Xu Lizhi a young worker at a FoxConn plant which assembled the iPhone. Xu jumped to his death on September 24, 2010 (as reported in the Washington Post). Xu left this poem behind.

“I want to touch the sky, feel that blueness so light
But I can’t do any of this, so I’m leaving this world
Everyone who’s heard of me
Shouldn’t be surprised at my leaving
Even less should you sigh or grieve
I was fine when I came, and fine when I left.”

At the moment of death, his compassion reached out to others.

Here is a story about a different workplace, the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Perhaps a place where we would expect compassion to be pouring out of the brickworks. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital is a leader in high performance healthcare, consistently rated as the best children’s hospital in the USA. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) has studied success at Cincinnati Children’s and concluded:

Family members and patients participate at all levels of the organization, from the organization wide family advisory council, to unit-based inpatient teams, to serving as family faculty who teach pediatric residents and orient new employees. Family members ensure that children’s and parents’ voices are heard. (

Compassion in this working environment is inclusive of patients, family, and, employees so that all have the opportunity to speak and be listened to. Compassion drives the connectivity between each equal partner. Something we can all learn from.

The ‘60 Minutes’ television programme in America, reported recently on Bren Smith, a former commercial fisherman from Newfoundland.  Bren started working as a fisherman at the age of 14.  He experienced the depletion of the natural fisheries of the North Atlantic as industrial fishing operations virtually eliminated the fish in the ocean and commercial fishing along with it. After leaving fishing, he tried other water-based industries, including oyster farming.  Operating in Long Island Sound, he lost his investments in the oyster farms due to Hurricane Sandy.

Among the most interesting ideas Bren shared with 60 Minutes was this:  “people like fishermen, carpenters, steelworkers, and others know that when they go to work every day they are contributing to what people and the world need:  food, housing, industrial building materials.”  But as a fisherman, he could no longer contribute in this way as the ocean was empty. However, he learned it was time to give back, and not just feel bitter and alienated as a result of the changes that he knew he had in his way participated in. Instead, Bren found a new way focus that was driven by compassion for the planet. Bren knew from his life experience and keen interests, that kelp was a resource that could replenish the ocean, and was able to invest in kelp farming.  Today his business is thriving and he is contributing to the solution of one of the greatest challenges we have in the world, the repair of our oceans. Bren is today working to repair the very source of the livelihood that he lost due to the blind greed of the industry he was part of.

FoxConn.  Cincinnati Children’s.  Bren Smith.  Is there a common thread of compassion in the workplace?

Xu Lizhi, at the moment of his ultimate despair contributed a beautiful poem for the whole world to read. We must not let Xu die in vain. If we are to consider ourselves compassionate people, we must build awareness of all working conditions that can result in despair and suicide for the millions of people who go to work every day.

We can contribute to this goal each day by demanding workplaces that create high value for the world in which we live.  All work is contribution, by definition.  The question is contribution for what? When the workplace is created for making contribution for others and the value of that contribution is shared intrinsically, the likelihood is that more value is created to be shared internally and externally from the enterprise.  We know this from the study of high value healthcare for example. The strategy for high value healthcare is known as Triple Aim: we will save money through improving each patient’s experience and population health.

The quality of that value is the key…we must evolve from the centuries-old highly exploitative paradigm of productivity input and output, to one of continuous quality, whether it is high performing health care or saving the ocean.

Compassion is a derivative of contribution…human beings spend most of their lives working.  Without a sense of contribution, work has less and less meaning.  Work without meaning forces people to turn inward to deal exclusively with the stressors of daily living…  compassion dies in that condition.

Are we living in a time when the values of capitalism are being assessed in new ways? There is plenty of evidence that is the case. How much longer will we demand iPhones or any other product without feeling the interconnectedness of work, contribution, and compassion?

It is up to us.  We can work in workplaces that are systems of high human value contribution, and reject the types of workplaces which are not. There is no easy solution to the elimination of the kinds of working conditions that still dominate worldwide industrial production.

Nevertheless, we can accelerate the value systems that create high contribution work and workplace.

John August