Compassion at Work: Are in-role compassion displays beneficial or costly to the provider?

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Acosta, Jennifer Diamond
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
December 07, 2017
Committee Members:
  • Alicia Ann Grandey, Dissertation Advisor
  • Alicia Ann Grandey, Committee Chair
  • Rick R Jacobs, Committee Member
  • Susan Mohammed, Committee Member
  • Lance Ferris, Outside Member
  • Compassion
  • Self Determination Theory
  • Prosocial Motives
  • Display Rules
  • Compassion Displays
Compassion is a prosocial reaction to observed distress involving feeling empathy and a desire to help. When shown at work, compassion clearly benefits the recipient by alleviating distress (Dutton, Workman, & Hardin, 2014; Lilius et al., 2008) but its effects on the provider are less clear. From one perspective, prosocial acts, such as displaying compassion, are beneficial to well-being because they promote positive social identity (Grant, 2007; Grant, Dutton, & Rosso, 2008) and generate personal resources (Lin, Ilies, Pluut, & Pan, 2017; Uy, Lin, & Ilies, 2015). From another perspective, showing compassion as part of one’s work role depletes resources and causes psychological distress, resulting in “compassion fatigue,” a condition similar to burnout (Figley, 1995). The purpose of this research is to contribute to knowledge and theory of compassion by shedding light on the conditions under which compassion displays can lead to enhanced versus diminished well-being. It was hypothesized, based on Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985), that three moderators – prosocial motives, emotional self-efficacy and display rule explicitness – would change the direction of the relationship between compassion displays and well-being outcomes (i.e., energy and physical health symptoms) as well as discretionary effort. It was predicted the relationships would be positive for individuals who scored high on the moderator variables and that the relationship would be negative for individuals who scored low. It was further hypothesized that these interaction effects would be explained by, or mediated by, psychological need satisfaction. Hypotheses were tested with data from a daily diary study with a sample of auto and property insurance claims contact center workers who have compassion display rules as part of their role. The three moderators were measured in a baseline survey. Participants then tracked their compassion displays, need satisfaction, well-being and discretionary effort for nine days. Results showed that, for employees with higher prosocial motives, compassion displays towards customers during a work shift were positively related to energy at the end of the shift and discretionary effort during the shift, but there were no relationships with these outcomes for employees with lower prosocial motives. Further, for employees with higher emotional self-efficacy, compassion displays during a work shift were associated with physical health benefits later that evening; this relationship was not found for employees with lower emotional self-efficacy. Need satisfaction did not explain the relationships between compassion displays and physical health. Need satisfaction did mediate the effects of compassion displays on energy and discretionary effort, though not in the hypothesized direction. Overall, the evidence supports the prosocial motivation view of compassion (Grant, 2008) over the fatigue view (Figley, 1995). Unlike studies of caring occupation work settings in which compassion was associated with burnout or lowered well-being (Figley, 1995, 2002; Halifax, 2011), in a call center context with required compassion, compassion displays were not found to be exhausting. Even in cases where employees felt controlled (i.e., low display or job autonomy) or when they were a poor fit with the job (i.e., low prosocial motives or low emotional self-efficacy), compassion displays did not directly result in diminished well-being or discretionary effort. The relational and temporal contexts may explain the difference in findings. Specifically, compassion displays may have positive motivational effects in short-term encounters whereas the depleting effects of compassion occur in longer, more intense interactions or relationships due to greater opportunity for the provider to develop more attachment to, and deep empathy for, the sufferer (Figley, 1995).