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  • Vanessa Barajas, MPH

Forgiveness in the Workplace

Two weeks ago we covered how to bounce back from a mistake at work, but what happens when you’re on the other side of the situation? What happens when someone makes a mistake and you’ve been impacted by it? It can bring feelings of anger, sadness, or confusion. When these feelings remain with you for long periods of time it can create emotional and even physical harm. According to Dr. Karen Swartz, director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, “There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed. Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions.“ The best way to avoid all of this is: forgiveness.

Psychologists define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness. It’s important to note that forgiveness doesn't mean forgetting or condoning the harm done to you or making up with the person.

Forgiveness can be extremely challenging, especially if the person who hurt you doesn't admit to it because we want justice. We want an apology. Sometimes, we want a reconciliation but those things are not within our control. We can’t change other people or make them do what we want. We can only control ourselves and our responses to life’s events. Forgiveness isn't for the other person, it’s to free you.

Studies support the power of forgiveness to potentially improve well-being and productivity in professional settings. One study looked at participants’ general tendency to be forgiving and their general state of mind and work habits over the previous month. Forgiveness was linked to increased productivity, fewer days missed at work, and fewer mental and physical health problems, such as sadness and headaches. These benefits were partly explained by reductions in interpersonal stress that went along with a forgiving disposition.

Dr. Fred Luskin, Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, has completed extensive research on the training and measurement of forgiveness therapy. His research demonstrates that learning forgiveness leads to increased physical vitality, hope, self-efficacy, optimism and conflict resolution skills. It shows that forgiveness can be learned, and a reduction in the emotional and physical manifestations of stress when we practice forgiveness.

There are many ways to approach forgiveness, but you can start by letting go of expectations from the other person. Forgiveness doesn't even need to involve the other person or people. It is a self-driven choice. Next, 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.

We often don't realize how many grudges we are holding on to that could be impacting our health, so writing down what you’re feeling and why you feel that way can be helpful. You can start by writing about your experiences in a journal or, if you prefer, talk to someone else in your life that you trust. If your harm was traumatic, you might consider talking to a therapist or counselor. Then you’ll want to acknowledge how your feelings about the situation are influencing your behavior or impacting your quality of life. If you feel ready, make the conscious choice to begin forgiving the other person. Remember, forgiveness doesn’t require you to say something aloud to the other person. It’s a personal choice that happens within yourself.

When we forgive, we take our power back. If we don’t forgive, this becomes part of our story and we continue to bring negative experiences and relationships into our workplace that can stifle performance, happiness and collaborative workplace culture. Forgiveness can have far reaching positive effects across organizations if it is encouraged and practiced at all levels.


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