“It all starts with compassionate leadership”: this week’s leadership message is from Sarah Massie, Associate Director Workforce and Education

Side of RRV with lozenge

If you were to ask any member of the public what they want from health and social care, it’s likely that compassion from the staff who provide care would be high on their wish list. But in order to establish compassionate cultures that manifest on the front line, we need to begin with compassionate leadership.

Compassion has many definitions, I find this one from a Tibetan scholar simple and easy to understand: ‘Compassion is a mental state endowed with a sense of concern for the suffering of others and aspiration to see that suffering relieved’. So it moves us on from empathy and sympathy by having three components: the cognitive ‘I understand you’, the affective ‘I feel for you’ and most importantly the motivational ‘I want to help you’. It is this third component that creates ambition for greater good, and the humility to act from a sense of others rather than for oneself.

There is an increasing body of evidence that caring, compassionate leadership is the key determinant of positive and compassionate cultures of care. But in today’s NHS, leaders are overwhelmed with demands, chaotic diaries, and relentless meetings allegedly necessary to increase productivity. So-called ‘smart technology’ inundates them with constant alerts, occupying their attention from the moment they wake.

The risk is that this relentless flood of over-stimulation results in scattered attention, lack of focus and an inability to be present in the moment – ultimately leading to reactionary decisions and a desire for their teams to do more, better and faster. In turn, this can leave staff feeling unvalued, unheard and increasingly disengaged. It’s no wonder that we see reports of staff feeling ‘broken’ across the health and Social care sector and increasing levels of work related stress and ‘burnt out’.

That’s why it’s so important that compassion starts with oneself. Compassionate leaders look after themselves and model this self-care to others. They realise it is ok to be human, to make mistakes and learn from them and they give themselves and others permission to do this. In a high-pressure environment with constantly competing priorities, compassion can sometimes be forgotten, but these leaders have to have the courage to work against the norms and challenge the wider culture that pervades a publicly scrutinised and regulated system. And organisations that not only enable their leaders to adopt this behaviour, but that actively encourage them to do so, are those that will reap the benefits in the long-term.

Compassion and kindness are not the same as likeability; rather they imply an interpersonal closeness that comes with responsibility, vulnerability and an absence of self-interest. Leaders at every level who practice compassion, and where kindness is valued at work, then create a culture that people want to be part of and an environment that fosters innovation and productivity. Taking time to connect with staff and patients as fellow human beings is all too often squeezed out, kindness and compassion are priceless and free to dispense. A humbling reminder of what all leaders can create.

Since joining the Trust, I have witnessed many examples of compassionate leadership; it is at the core of our leadership strategy, we are developing a range of offers to equip staff at every level with the tools of compassion and are keen to engage with teams to help these positive cultures flourish.

Hope you all have a good week,


Published 9th November, 2017

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