A little compassion in an age of bullying
The University of Auckland's Dr Mike Webster takes a look at a slightly different approach to school and workplace bullying
In the days that followed World Compassion Day last week, I couldn’t help but think about the increasing problem of bullying in schools and workplaces in New Zealand.
We know from the 2015 OECD PISA report that 26 percent of our students experienced at least one of the six bullying behaviours a few times a month or more — higher than the OECD average of 19 percent. These bullying behaviours include forcible removal or destruction of personal belongings; physical assaults; threats; malicious rumours; deliberate social isolation and making fun of others.
Our workplaces report similar statistics. Research from the Universities of Auckland, Waikato, Massey and London, quoted by the New Zealand Institute of Safety Management (NZISM), suggests that one in five workers has experienced intimidation. The NZISM’s Greg Dearsly is calling for a “culture of kindness,” and points out that bullying is a hazard under workplace wellbeing legislation.
So what exactly is bullying? University of Canterbury’s Professor Kate van Heugten defines it as personal attacks; verbal threats; interference with tasks and roles; social isolation and finally physical violence. UK researcher Stewart Collins found that those targeted by bullying may experience a loss of confidence in making decisions and in their capacity to carry out routine tasks formerly managed without difficulty.
My research suggests the key issue to address bullying in our schools and workplaces relates to leadership. Poor leadership can result in a destructive culture which can wreak havoc. One participant made this perceptive comment: “Where there is poor leadership, or the wrong people in the wrong job at the wrong time, the culture that can develop is destructive and because the work is stressful it can bring out the worst in people.”
In spite of the worrying statistics about bullying, we know that there are many organisations in New Zealand with compassion at the heart of what they do. One example is an initiative that’s been encouraging and nurturing compassion among intermediate school students for more than eight years now, Chefs for Compassion.
Chefs for Compassion was founded by Marty Smith in 2010 to provide an extra-curricular, experiential learning programme to intermediate students, with their parents, offering participants the chance to practice and expand their individual compassion.
Marty Smith and Robert Barnes are the chair and deputy chair, respectively, for the trust and I recently volunteered to help their programme development team.
To the budding chefs of CfC, compassion means “loving and valuing one's self and others, by having an understanding of one’s hurt and the hurt of others, and drawing out solutions that are based in the long-term best interests of all”.
The chefs demonstrate this value by serving a four-course banquet to families nominated by agencies such as Child Cancer, Women’s Refuge, Open Home Foundation, Oranga Tamariki and Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. Rosmini College, Takapuna Normal Intermediate and Birkdale Intermediate, all based in Auckland, are currently hosting chefs.
CfC offers unique learning opportunities for the participating Years 7 and 8 students. As well as cooking and food preparation, chefs learn skills in public speaking, confidence building, understanding and respecting others, staying positive and connecting with others. For many, the feeling of satisfaction in helping others and “making a difference” are important lessons learned.
Feedback on the initiative has been amazing. Jacob, a young man hosted by CfC wrote, “I absolutely loved [the food]! I found the atmosphere extremely welcoming ... brought tears to my eyes knowing how much compassion and effort was put into this wonderful evening. It will never be forgotten.”
One teacher says, “You can’t help but get caught up in his wonderful passion.”
There is a great deal of activity in the empathy and compassion space, especially when it comes to children. The value of instilling empathy in children is well established. “Compassion” is less common, and using cooking to teach compassion experientially is even less common. In the case of Chefs for Compassion, there is plenty of anecdotal support that the children involved are becoming more compassionate.
Perhaps Bertrand Russell—arguably the pre-eminent philosopher of the 20th century—captured what we need: “The root of the matter is so simple that I am almost ashamed to mention it, for fear of the derisive smile with which wise cynics will greet my words. The thing I mean—please forgive me for mentioning it — is love, Christian love, or compassion. If you feel this, you have a motive for existence, a guide in action, a reason for courage, an imperative necessity for intellectual honesty.”