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Attachment and Compassion in the Workplace

Attachment theory proposes that experiences of receiving care in early childhood shapes an individual’s template for understanding and navigating relationships throughout their life (Bowlby, 1982). Those of us who are lucky enough to experience caregiving as safe, responsive and nurturing are proposed to hold healthy perceptions of our self-worth, develop confidence in our ability to manage adversity, and are more likely to experience relationships as safe. Those of us however who receive inconsistent, threat-inducing or detached experiences of care are more likely to develop internalised models which lead us to perceive relationships as unsafe and experience a negative self-concept. As the ability to build relationships punctuates so many areas of life, attachment style has been well-researched and demonstrated to influence numerous aspects of interpersonal and social functioning (Harms, 2011).

Even with the increasing trend towards remote working, workplaces are by their very nature social. We often work in teams, frequently interact with colleagues and clients both professionally and socially and experience challenging processes of evaluation and appraisal at the hands of others. It can be argued therefore that our attachment styles will inevitably influence our experience of work, with research suggesting that attachment style can impact how appreciated we feel at work, work satisfaction, ability to focus and preoccupation with relational issues (Hazan and Shaver, 1990). Importantly, Mikulincer and Shaver (2017) propose that individuals with insecure attachment styles are less able to meet workplace demands and experience greater distraction by interpersonal conflicts as a consequence of feeling unable to rely on the support of others. Additional evidence highlights the relationship between attachment style and job burnout and increased intention to leave a role.

Attachment style and the ability to engage in self-compassion are linked, with experiences of early care proposed to influence one’s ability to engage physiological systems underpinning compassionate motivation (Gilbert, 2009), with dimensions of insecure attachment styles having being shown to be negatively correlated to dimensions of self-compassion.

A recent workplace study by Reizer (2019) evidences the protective qualities of self-compassion by demonstrating that self-compassion mediated the negative impact of attachment style across multiple organisational outcomes. Additionally, self-compassion was shown to facilitate increased job performance and pro-social behaviour at work, decreased emotional exhaustion and expressed intent to leave the current role.

Insecurely attached individuals have been shown to experience negative emotions in the workplace and engage in a number of unhelpful coping strategies. The author proposes that one mechanism by which self-compassion may improve psychological resilience in these individuals is by supporting them to approach their pain and emotional upset with sympathy and acceptance while at work. Therefore while these individuals may still experience distressing and distracting emotions in the workplace, they may be better able to manage by engaging feelings of acceptance and self-love which may serve to diminish distress. This may in turn improve functioning and performance in a workplace context. In this sense, self-compassion is considered an “inner resource” supporting employees with the numerous challenges of a modern workplace.

This important study redefines the concept of an effective employee from one of stoic and non-feeling, instead suggesting that true resilience and productivity result from attending to and embracing our emotional world with self-compassion.