“You Just Don’t Talk about Certain Topics”: How Concerns to Disclose Suffering to Leaders Constrain Compassion at Work

Cristopher J. Tietsort, Sarah J. Tracy, Elissa A. Adame

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Employee and organizational sustainability are threatened by widespread stress, burnout, and mental health challenges, among other life events. Compassion at work may create more sustainable organizations by alleviating this suffering, but scholars remain puzzled as to why compassion often fails to unfold within organizations. One potential explanation is that suffering employees feel uncertain in expressing suffering at work. To date, however, relatively little research has examined the perspective of suffering employees and the potential hesitation to express suffering due to organizational norms, power dynamics with leaders, and other influences. This study seeks to expand our understanding of compassion by examining how suffering employees make sense of compassionate interactions with leaders, and the concerns they have disclosing and discussing suffering at work. Utilizing qualitative, semi-structured interviews, we found that suffering employees have four driving concerns, which constrain the discussion of suffering at work: (1) professionalism and the appropriateness of suffering, (2) the validity of one’s suffering, (3) the collective impact of a compassionate response, and (4) image management. These concerns, while at times isolated, were often layered for employees in ways that compounded the challenge of disclosing suffering and openly engaging with leaders across the compassion process. We analyze these driving concerns, linking them to prior research and illustrating how these concerns limit employees ability to receive compassion and, in some cases, exacerbate their suffering. Practical implications are discussed as well, outlining ways that organizations can shape compassion processes toward greater employee sustainability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number4628
JournalSustainability (Switzerland)
Issue number5
StatePublished - Mar 2023


  • compassion
  • emotion
  • empathy
  • leadership
  • organizational compassion
  • uncertainty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computer Science (miscellaneous)
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Building and Construction
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology
  • Hardware and Architecture
  • Computer Networks and Communications
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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