Mental & Behavioral Health

Forgiveness in the Workplace: A Wellness Perspective

When was the last time you heard someone in your organization say, "I'm sorry", to a colleague or "I forgive you" to a leader? While these phrases were ingrained in us as children, they seemed to have gotten lost on the way to the office. Twenty years of research supports why forgiveness is more than just a good idea, yet in reality we see little practice of it in the workplace.

Perhaps forgiveness has been wrapped up in religious connotation for so long that we hesitate to give it in the workplace. However, I contend that isolating forgiveness as a spiritual tool keeps us from fully embracing its potential as a means of helping ourselves, both physically and emotionally at work. Forgiveness can help relieve the physical symptoms of stress that are all too common when we stay in a state of non-forgiveness.

Forgiveness can improve our workplace performance by freeing our minds of emotional constraints that allows for greater concentration and focus on the task at hand. Forgiveness can undeniably increase the quality of our work relationships and bind teams together in honest discourse. As a leadership competency, it can influence corporate values and shape corporate culture. Forgiveness can have far reaching positive effects across organizations if it is encouraged and practiced at all levels.

Scientific study validates that forgiveness is good for your health! For example, researchers at the University of Tennessee found a strong connection between forgiving and blood pressure and stress. According to the study, people who forgave more easily had a lower resting blood pressure and heart rate than people who did not forgive as easily.

Additionally, people who were "high forgivers" were more likely to work harder to resolve conflict and as a result, tended to have stronger relationships. According to a study at Duke University Medical Center, people who have forgiven others experience lower levels of physical pain, anger, and depression.

What causes us the most harm, is the pent up anger and resentment toward someone who has wronged us that when left unattended, can grow to overshadow our existing relationships, spin our thoughts out of control, and bring our bodies to a screeching halt. It may be tempting to be resentful toward another rather than forgive him or her. Somehow we think if we forgive, we are letting the offender "off the hook," and condoning the hurtful acts done to us.

However, forgiveness doesn't need to involve the offender at all. It is a self-driven choice. By releasing our anger and resentment, we are freeing ourselves of the potential isolation, low self-esteem, and poor self-care that can drive stress related illnesses. Forgiveness can become our reward, rather than our weakness.

Forgiveness takes practice, patience, and humility, all of which can be in short supply at work with too many deadlines, too many meetings, not enough resources, and unrelenting shareholder pressure. Here are a few tips to help you weave forgiveness into your daily life and reap the health rewards:

  1. Get in a forgiveness mindset. Instead of assuming people are out to get you, assume best intentions instead. If you are suspicious of others unceasingly, the slightest wrong may be magnified and further hardens you to the very idea of forgiveness. Accept that people have wronged you, that it may or may not have been intentional, and realize no one is keeping it alive but you.
  2. Decide your own definition of forgiveness. What does forgiveness mean to you? How does forgiveness feel to you? People experience forgiveness differently. By creating a definition that fits you, you are more likely to take action on what you are able to forgive rather than trying to please someone else.
  3. Make a list. Often we don't realize how many grudges we are holding on to that could be impacting our health. I had a manager in my office who was experiencing stress symptoms including hair loss, weight loss, gastrointestinal discomfort, and depression. As we began to talk about how she felt both physically and emotionally, she admitted that she had been angry at the leadership of the organization for making a change in policy four years earlier that she perceived had negatively impacted employees.

    She talked about how she couldn't get passed the anger she felt about the change in policy and how it occupied her thoughts every day. I asked her to make a list of any other grudges she had been holding on to over the past four years. She was surprised to find that she was holding grudges against not just leadership but her co-workers as well.

    When we addressed the anger behind each grudge, we learned that she was really struggling with feeling empowered at work. She felt that her ideas were dismissed, and she was ignored. We worked on a forgiveness action plan designed to free her physically and emotionally from the anger that drove the grudges in the first place.
  4. Practice "letting go". Change your expectations of self and others. Stop expecting yourself to be perfect and others to be perfect. There are no perfect people. Let go of the hurt, release the pain, be free from shame. Emotional shackles can make you unwell.
  5. Forgiveness takes time. Be patient. It will not instantaneously occur. Forgiveness is a process not an event.
  6. Talk to someone who can help you be objective. Explore the feelings you have associated with forgiveness whether it be with a close friend, a family member, a clergy member, or a therapist. They can hold up the proverbial mirror to your face so you can see for yourself what is really there.

Forgiveness may not mean you forget your past hurt, but it can lessen the sting. It can propel you forward rather than keep you in the mire of misery. Most importantly, forgiveness can be your way to a healthier body and mind at work. Modeling forgiveness may inspire your colleagues to feel safe to do the same, thus creating a more dynamic and healthy environment for everyone.

About the Authors

Judi Hennebry Wise, M.A., has over twenty five years of experience as an expert in learning, organizational change, and performance improvement. Judi is the Director of Education Services for PriMed Management Consulting/Hill Physicians Medical Group and oversees the employee wellness program. The organization was recently recognized as The Healthiest Company in the Bay Area for large size companies for the third consecutive year.

Lori Golden, M.A., has over ten years of experience as a health educator and wellness coach. She has been trained in behavior change methodologies through Stanford University. Lori is also a certified Clinical Hypnotherapist and yoga instructor. She is currently working in marketing communications with a focus on health promotion.

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