This summary is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center

Dr. Rebecca Leach and colleagues explored compassion among coworkers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The objective was to understand how workers navigated being able to work independently and feeling empowered to make change (increased agency) while simultaneously helping one another and fostering a culture of compassion to get through a difficult time.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted from October – November 2021 with 27 healthcare workers in the United States. All participants were required to be at least eighteen years old, to work in a healthcare organization, and to have been employed in their current organization for at least one year. All participants were in patient-facing positions, including physical therapists, nurses, physician assistants, and mental health practitioners.

Key Findings

  • Increased stress and turbulence within the organization created a situation where employees had to halt their normally compassionate behavior in favor of self-preservation and agency.
  • Participants reported needing to find the balance between helping their peers and also protecting themselves.
  • When participants found ways to exercise their agency for the good of their role or the organization, they often shared that information or strategy in compassionate ways to help their peers.

Implications for Practice

This study highlights the complicated and evolving relationship between compassion and agency, which may not be apparent at first glance. By learning from healthcare workers during the pandemic, the study found that workers want to both experience agency (being able to make decisions on their own, particularly due to the lack of information/structure during the crisis) and help others, but sometimes they simply did not have the bandwidth for both. As such, sometimes participants had to choose between pushing themselves forward for positive change and spending time to support others.

Considering these findings, employers may consider finding pathways for their employees to make their own decisions and move forward (have increased agency where possible) and simultaneously help create opportunities for employee compassionate behavior. This may mean creating meetings specifically for supporting one another within the work week, and conducting management meetings wherein leaders find ways that they can help their employees to have more agency and reduced unnecessary oversight, particularly during times of stress and chaos.

Click here to learn more about the relationship between agency and compassion in the workplace, and how stressful situations play a role.


Leach, R. B., Zanin, A. C., Tracy, S. J., & Adame, E. A. (2023). Collective compassion: Responding to structural barriers to compassion with agentic action in healthcare organizations. Management Communication Quarterly, 0(0).

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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