Be kind. Two small words, when set into action, can leverage big results.
Research shows practising kindness can improve our mental and physical well-being and create a strong sense of community – even at work.
With that in mind, Western Human Resources has launched a Make Kindness Count initiative to enhance a culture encouraging gratitude, recognition and appreciation amongst all faculty and staff.
The program’s website provides links to self-directed learning and resources to help spread kindness.
“We want to keep making Western a great place to work,” said Lindsay Plaisant, an occupational therapist and manager of employee well-being at Western Human Resources. “The benefits of showing acts of kindness, practising gratitude, and giving and receiving recognition are well documented. Kindness helps promote employee engagement, job satisfaction and fosters a sense of belonging, which is an important aspect of the university’s strategic plan.”
Cards, notes and certificates
Since the program was introduced to leaders last month, 500 people have visited the Make Kindness Count site, accessing printable and electronic cards and certificates that feature Western Mustangs mascot JW and a Canada goose.
“We wanted to provide accessible and fun tools to recognize people for doing great work and bringing their best selves to Western,” Plaisant said.
More content will be added to the site over time, with a goal to grow a greater culture of kindness and positivity.
“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves – sometimes unreasonable amounts,” Plaisant said. “When others take notice of our good work or positive outlook, it helps silence that inner critic. And when we practise kindness, it also helps create a more positive mindset.”
Health Sciences professor Jennifer Irwin applauds the new program, having studied kindness in a university setting. She believes the key to making kindness count at work, or anywhere else, is authenticity.
“The acknowledgments have to be genuine, and let the recipient know, ‘I see you,’” she said. “When we aren’t seen, or seen inaccurately, it feels like wearing a sweater that doesn’t fit. The genuineness has to be there. When it’s not, it has the opposite impact.”
Irwin is presenting a virtual webinar entitled, Kindness: Doing, Feeling and Being Better, on Friday, April 14, from 12 to 1:00 p.m. She’ll offer practical tips on practising kindness and strategies on how to positively influence relationships.
She sat down with Western News to discuss kindness and its cascading effect on others and ourselves.
Western News: What originally drew you to study kindness?
Jennifer Irwin: It came from a time when someone was extremely unkind to me. It really impacted my mood – I was really down and hurt. Later that same day in the grocery store, when I was getting a bag for my vegetables, I got one for the person behind me, too. I thought nothing of it. But they were so appreciative of that small gesture. It really surprised me, and, at first, I felt kind of startled that we live in a society where such a small gesture isn’t expected by people. And then, it made me feel better. It got me thinking how receiving and showing kindness – and unkindness – is catchy, and how if we aren’t purposeful in being kind, we are complicit. I shared the story with my health promotion class the next day and asked if they’d be interested in a voluntary project focused on kindness. We took a vote and in a class of 348 students, all these hands went up. It was stunning.
WN: What did the project look like and what were the results?
Irwin: We named the project “The Butterfly Effect,” because it showed how kindness, like a butterfly, can move its wings in one place and create a movement elsewhere. Over three weeks, students completed random acts of kindness, like leaving encouraging notes in the library or handing out tea to bus drivers.
During that time, I noticed a ‘feel’ in the class I’ve never experienced before. One of my really bright students found the project very meaningful and wondered if others felt the same way. So, we designed a study and 151 student-participants responded about their experiences.
Respondents completed an average of 13 random acts of kindness each; 73 per cent reported an increase in their enjoyment of the class; 65 per cent reported an improvement in class cohesion; 62 per cent felt they learned something about themselves, 59.6 per cent reported a reduction in stress and 95 per cent of the students found an increased awareness of how their actions impacted others. Even after the project ended, 84 per cent of the students said they continued practising random acts of kindness.
WN: How do you define kindness?
Irwin: I see kindness as a quality of being well-intentioned, genuine and considerate. Historically, kindness got conflated with niceness, being polite and bringing joy. Often kindness is nice, and niceness is often kind, but there’s no equal sign between them.
Kindness is not about being a doormat. It includes, and I would argue, it necessitates, having boundaries. And it often requires courage, whether it’s having the courage to put yourself out there while engaging in a kind act toward another, or maybe to give honest and difficult feedback that might be needed to help the person meet success, like on an essay or test, for example.
WN: You’ve also studied the effect of kindness on mood, anxiety and resilience. What did you find?
Irwin: Quantitative findings showed deliberate acts of kindness, a pro-social behaviour, caused reductions in anxiety, negative moods and improved resilience. Qualitatively, participants reported improvements in their mental health and an increased connection to others.
In a couple of studies, we paired graduate students to coach and support each other. They were on both the receiving and giving end and it was hard to tease out which was more responsible for their reductions in anxiety and improved well-being. They valued being able to support others. It suggests we really do experience benefits when we choose to be present and send the message that we see someone and they matter.
WN: Is there anything else you’d like Western faculty and staff to know about kindness?
Irwin: We know small acts of kindness each day can have a significant impact. It can start with one small thing, like smiling at someone over Zoom.
Other researchers have shown people benefit just from watching or remembering acts of kindness. There’s a mind-body connection. Practising kindness can increase levels of serotonin and dopamine.
I also like to remind people to be kind to themselves. If you give it all away, there’s nothing left for you.
Kindness is catchy. Each small gesture we make builds upon another. You put a quarter in the slot machine, and you get 50 cents back. Every time.
–Edited for brevity and clarity