Compassion: an on-trend phenomenon

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3 Apr 2014

Penny Tamkin

Penny Tamkin

Right now, compassion is trending. Google hits for 'compassion' in the UK show a steady rise over the last eight or so years.

The dictionary describes compassion as 'a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for someone struck by misfortune, accompanied by a desire to alleviate the suffering'. It is embedded in our humanity and helps us affiliate, care and nurture our friends, family, neighbours and community. It is as much a part of our human make up as our ability to read body language or offer a smile to a friend. But then, casual cruelty is human too, the desire to laugh at others, to treat 'us' and 'them' differently, to turn away from pain, to be worn out by others complaints... We can swing either way it seems and evidence suggests that affiliative, caring, trusting, cultures with well-managed workloads are more likely to incubate compassion than harsh, coercive, disengaged, disempowered environments where work overload is the norm.

However, two beliefs might make us less mindful of the lessons for us all. Firstly, because a big part of the current surge in interest has centred on the NHS, which has been hit by accusations of callous indifference in the wake of the Francis Inquiry, we are in danger of seeing these issues as irrelevant to most organisations and to regard compassion as a concern peculiar to NHS or care providers. But all organisations need some level of involvement in care and compassion; with the workforce, with customers, with colleagues.

Secondly, we might believe the main problem occurs when compassion is replaced by callousness or cruelty but there is something much more insidious that compromises compassion. Professional detachment is often advised for those who regularly come into contact with the suffering of others, and might be thought of as a perfectly reasonable adjustment to ensure a fair and rationale response. A few years ago, I interviewed a leader in a social care organisation about finding the right people to work in care. He had little time for the professional detachment he encountered in some nurses:

'... they're so far up their own arses with their own professionalism, they make me choke. Because they wouldn't know care if it smacked them in the face.'

Detachment makes it all too easy to build walls between people, to reduce their ability to care or to instil in them that caring too much is unprofessional. I am still surprised how often managers mention that they have been advised to keep emotional distance between themselves and the people they manage.

Such detachment is clearly madness when there is plenty of evidence that individuals want managers who care, and those who do care create the conditions for successful, efficient organisations who want to do the best for the customer.

I and my colleagues at IES tend to be ambivalent about most trends and suspicious that hype is more prevalent than substance. Being behind the trend is often a very good thing, but not in the case of compassion. Organisations really should run with this one and explore what it might mean for them. Rather than detach ourselves from compassion, or see it as a peculiarly NHS phenomena, we should embrace it and use it to create engaging and nurturing organisations where people and customers thrive.

To allow my care leader the last word:

'We get the best out of humans when we let them be fully human.'

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