Compassion as central for stress reduction and well-being

Compassion as an important skill

This research project is concerned with what it takes for students to thrive – in study environments, in the study-work-life balance, as new students begin at their study programs and as graduates enter the work market. We are exploring how to reduce and manage stress, and how to increase and improve well-being among students. We have found that compassion, as a human quality and skill that can be enhanced and trained, matters in this regard. At the CBS Responsibility Day 2021 Principal Nikolaj Malchow-Møller opened the event with the following words: ”As a school of business we believe that a business leader has to take responsibility for much more than just the profit of the company. Our aim is to make them competitive in business and compassionate in society.”

Compassion influences well-being among people, but also relates to people’s ability and drive to take responsibility in society. In the literature, compassion is often defined as an interpersonal process involving “feeling for another” which influences one’s actions, for example feeling a genuine drive to act, whereas empathy involves “feeling as another” (Dutton et al., 2006). Although the two concepts are closely related, compassion is more action oriented than empathy. The word compassion derives from Latin meaning “co-suffering” or “to suffer together”. To have compassion imply that being confronted with other’s suffering creates a strong emotional response and a desire to help relieve that suffering. It is a human force that drives people to selfless acts of attending to the care of others, or themselves, also referred to as self-compassion.  

Compassion as a solution

Pedersen argues that compassion is deeply connected with well-being and that a more compassionate culture reduces stress. In this project she therefore asks: If we regard compassion as a key skill important for students’ well-being at CBS, but also for their capabilities for coping with a future work-life demands, how then, can CBS work with compassion in teaching and study environments? This is a question Pedersen continues to explore through her research and collaboration with students, but she already has some ideas.

One aspect concerns the knowing of other people’s “suffering”. It is hard to foster compassion if people don’t know the challenges others are facing. It is also hard if there within the culture is a dominant view of what “success” look like, which can create a pressure to perform in certain ways and to pretend to be okay or on top of things all the time. Working with compassion then entails creating habits and environments where it is experienced as normal and safe to share challenges of study life. Another aspect is therefore to break taboos. This could include debunking myths of success and “the ideal student”, nuancing the picture, and making greater room for multiplicity of experiences. In relation hereto, a third aspect is to point towards the shared humanity, and the feeling that “we are in the same boat” or could be in the future. Lastly, a fourth aspect is to find ways to take compassionate action for oneself and others.

Pedersen’s project is facilitating and addressing these four aspects currently through writings, workshops, videos, and podcasts in dialogue with students. More material and methods will be developed over time. Sarah, a third year HA(phil.) student, who participates in this work, described the need so well:

“It also requires that CBS create an environment where it is safe to talk about these things. Because it is not there now, I do not feel that it is. It should be normalized. Break this taboo, be more compassionate and be more sensitive. Because sensitivity is not a weakness, it is a strength.”

To understand the challenges of others, but also to foster environments that perceive sensitivity is a strength, can lead to more compassionate relations. Pedersen is developing material and methods that aims to help students give voice to their experiences and find ways to act on them. Yet it will take a collective effort to make new practices and habits over time. It is her hope that in particular students can help and support each other in this movement, but also that teachers get involved.

“All my research is about strengthening study communities and teaching students to support each other in navigating the study life, which in year 2021 is characterized by high and potentially conflicting demands and ideals and myths about what the “perfect” student needs to do and be. This can unfortunately create stress and situations where people don’t dare to share their insecurities or reach out to others” – Pernille Steen Pedersen