Compassion – great at work, but for whom?

Compassion at work
AlexRaths/iStock
Gail Kinman
Professor of Occupational Health Psychology
University of Bedfordshire
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This article was written by Gail Kinman, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire and is based on research conducted by Professor Kinman and Dr. Louise Grant, also of the University of Bedfordshire.

Around three million people in the UK are employed in health and social care – one in ten of the working population.

For many, caring for people who are in pain and distress is an intrinsic part of the job.

Compassionate ‘person-centred’ care has wide-ranging benefits for service users and can be an immense source of job satisfaction, but there is growing evidence that it can threaten the wellbeing of professionals and the quality of care that they provide.

What is compassion and what are the benefits?

Compassion involves a deep awareness of the suffering of another, together with the desire to relieve it.

It differs from ‘task-based’ care which merely provides what is necessary for a person’s health, welfare, maintenance and protection.

While technical competency is undoubtedly essential to ensure the safety and wellbeing of service users, compassionate care also encompasses qualities such as kindness, sensitivity, empathy, concern and warmth.

Studies have found that receiving compassionate care has many benefits. For example, it enables more accurate diagnosis and improves patients’ adherence to medical advice.

People who are treated by a compassionate caregiver also tend to be less anxious, recover more and are more satisfied with the quality of service they receive.

Compassion also influences judgements of competence – it has a ‘halo’ effect whereby practitioners who are more compassionate tend to be considered more knowledgeable and effective.

Providing compassionate care can also be beneficial for professionals. Our research has found that social workers who are more compassionate find their work more satisfying.

‘Compassion satisfaction’, or the pleasure gained from providing compassionate care, builds emotional resilience and provides a sense of fulfilment that protects professional care-givers from burnout.

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is the negative side of helping work.  It is characterised by emotional exhaustion, cynicism and feelings of disillusionment.

People who experience compassion fatigue may lack empathy and find it difficult to make meaningful connections with others.

We have found that, over time, compassion fatigue can lead to mental and physical health problems and seriously compromise the quality of personal and professional life.

The importance of self-compassion

People who work in health and social care do not necessarily prioritise their own wellbeing – indeed they often consider the wellbeing of others to be more important than their own.

Nonetheless, it is crucial to recognise that self-compassion and self-care is not a luxury but increases the capacity to care for others.

Self-compassion has three elements:

  • self-kindness - being warm and understanding towards ourselves rather than being self-critical when we fail or feel inadequate;
  • common humanity – recognising that suffering and failure is part of a shared human experience and
  • mindfulness – taking a balanced approach to negative emotions rather than trying to suppress them, deny them or over-identify with them.

We have found that self-compassion is a key factor in protecting the wellbeing of health and social care workers and enhancing satisfaction and fulfilment.

There is evidence that self-kindness may be particularly beneficial. 

What can be done?

It is important for health and social care organisations to recognise the risks faced by staff when delivering high quality compassionate care.

Under current working conditions of high demand and reduced resources, the risks of compassion fatigue and poor self-care are likely to be particularly high.

There is firm evidence that compassion fatigue can compromise wellbeing and job performance, so it should be recognised and managed accordingly.

Interventions are required to help staff manage the emotional demands of their work and remain healthy and effective. 

What did our research find?

Our research has found that strategies such as mindfulness, cognitive restructuring and writing about emotions can protect against compassion fatigue and improve self-care and compassion.  

Mentoring and peer coaching programmes can also help build supportive relationships where effective techniques can be shared.

The importance of ‘compassion literacy’

Nonetheless, a more systemic approach is required to build ‘compassion literacy’ among professional caregivers.

Organisations should create an open and non-judgemental environment where the risks as well as the benefits of caring with compassion are recognised.

We have found that role models who openly discuss their own emotional reactions to the job and difficulties they have experienced can help foster such an environment.

A strong and supportive team culture can also help caregivers manage emotional demands more effectively and protect them against burnout.

Training on how to spot the symptoms of compassion fatigue in oneself and others at an early stage is also recommended for workers at all levels.

The need for effective self-care habits, such as good nutrition, sleep and regular breaks from work, should also be widely communicated.

Insight is also needed into the experiences of people working in other emotionally demanding jobs, such as within the charity sector, where compassion fatigue and self-care are likely to be relevant. 

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