'Compassion is central to everything we do in health and in creating a highly functioning society'

I wonder what emotions or thoughts the word ‘compassion’ triggers in you?Maybe it conjures images of a benevolent nurse mopping someone’s brow. Maybe it triggers a warm, fuzzy feeling inside you, a safe feeling of being looked after?

Monday, 15th March 2021, 11:36 am
Compassion is just as important to health
Compassion is just as important to health

I will confess in the past I’ve viewed compassion as a ‘nice-to-have’ but perhaps a soft and gentle skill that is less relevant to the headline roles like leadership, management, or critical decision making. I’ve even wondered how relevant it is to the science driven world of medicine.

But I’ve realised that compassion is central to everything we do in health and in creating a highly functioning society.

Compassion is often confused with sympathy or empathy. Sympathy is the pity and sorrow we show for others when we perceive their misfortune. But it does assume that we understand that person’s feelings. Perhaps a better approach is to offer empathy, where rather than assume you understand, you make the effort to see the situation from that person’s perspective, to ‘stand in their shoes’, and ‘experience their pain’.

Compassion takes it a step further where you feel someone’s pain, but then take action to offer help. You actually do something with the intent of alleviating their suffering. Bearing in mind last week’s piece on coaching, ideally this action comes in the form of supporting someone to find their own best fit solutions, rather than assuming you know what they need.

I would recommend an excellent podcast in this area. In his ‘Compassionate leadership’ series, episode 28, Chris Whitehead interviews Stephen Trzeciak, who wrote a book called Compassionomics. Dr Trzeciak is an intensive care specialist, a self-confessed ‘research nerd’ and Professor and Chair of Cooper Medical school, Rowan University.

He makes a well- reasoned case for how evidence shows compassion is the key factor in good care. He also highlights research using brain scans that reveals brain activity when we show empathy occupies the area of pain, we literally feel other people’s pain. However, when we practice compassion it lights up the reward area of our brain.

Sheffielder Dr Micheal West, is a leader in this field. His work highlights that teams that practice with compassion are not only happier themselves, but it also strongly predicts how well their service performs.

My new understanding is compassion is a key element in both how we care for other people and ourselves. It is not just the fuzzy ‘nice-to-have’, I once perceived it, but an evidence- based keystone feature of successful services and communities.

I would suggest that as we seek to recover from this pandemic, and build a new future for our city, understanding and operating with compassion is going to be crucial for all of us.