When times get hard – effective leaders practice compassion

Compassion is not a virtue – it is a commitment. It’s not something we have or don’t have – it’s something we choose to practice.

There is no escaping the NHS crisis narrative at the moment. It includes a cocktail of the enduring legacy of Covid, high levels of stress and burnout for staff resulting in people leaving the NHS, alongside pay disputes and industrial action. The cost of living crisis is also taking its toll, increasing demand on social care and the third sector and putting more pressure on already overstretched services and capacity.  These are complex issues with no miracle solutions. 

At a time of crisis, it can feel that all our energy is taken up firefighting; when these are the times that compassion and its positive effects are needed most. Despite the obvious pressures, it is clear that the NHS workforce embodies the core value of compassionate care for patients. In turn, our leaders need to sustain a workplace culture of compassionate so that staff feel listened to, understood and helped to maintain high quality care. 

Research shows that compassion gets embedded in an organisation when there is buy-in and modelling from the top. Positive emotion in leaders is associated with more positive emotion in staff, enhanced team performance and higher rates of prosocial behaviour. And, when nurses are spoken to harshly, for example, by a supervisor, this affects their subsequent interaction with patients over the course of a day. So, it’s no exaggeration to say that compassion demonstrated by leaders will have a significant effect on a patient’s experience and outcomes. 

“Compassion is not a virtue – it is a commitment,” says Brene Brown. “It’s not something we have or don’t have – it’s something we choose to practice”. So, with this in mind Dr Robert Marx and Professor Clara Strauss from the Sussex Mindfulness Centre have created a six-week Compassionate Leadership training programme for NHS and social care staff. This experiential course explores compassion as kindness directed towards suffering – our own and others – and is based on Professor Michael West’s book Compassionate Leadership: Sustaining Wisdom, Humanity and Presence in Health and Social Care 2021. 

In the course, we focus on cultivating self-compassion and what it means to be a compassionate leader. The course draws on mindfulness practice, research and the recognition that our vulnerability as humans allow us to connect, listen to the challenges of others and be helpful. At the heart of compassionate leadership is understanding the difficulties staff experience, through collaboration and fostering collective responsibility for complex challenges.

If you are interested in the training you can find out more about it here.