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Compassionate leadership – more important than ever in today’s NHS

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Compassion has always been important in health and social care, but arguably never more so than now. Financial and operational pressures in the health and care system have resulted in performance targets becoming more difficult to achieve, constrained resources, and staff working longer and longer hours under increasing stress.

Consequently, alongside providing compassionate care for patients, it’s becoming more critical for staff to demonstrate real compassion towards each other in the workplace. This is borne out by NHS Improvement’s strategy, Developing people – improving care, which puts leadership and compassion top of its list of conditions needed to shape cultures that enable sustainable, high-quality care.

Our programme, Developing compassionate leadership through mindfulness, sets out to support health care leaders working in an increasingly pressured environment to develop compassion for themselves and others in a way that will really make a difference to health care outcomes.

One of the fundamental principles of the programme is that, in order to lead with compassion, a leader has to start with themselves. Self-compassion through mindfulness is used as a way to approach self-care, and studying emotional intelligence alongside this gives participants a better understanding of the neuroscience that sits behind it. By understanding the emotions of empathy, sympathy, compassion, happiness and stress, participants can consider the role and impact of compassion within and across teams, on their own leadership role, and across the complex systems they inhabit.

We know through talking to past participants that the programme has had an impact on how they manage the pressures they face in their day-to-day work. Participants talked about how they now felt better equipped to help themselves, their teams and their organisation; how they had changed their approach to challenging situations; how they interact with others and how they see themselves.

This feedback is supported by analysis of a research questionnaire and psychometric tests that participants completed before and after the programme.

Among the participants there was a significant decrease in perceived stress, and an increase in emotional wellbeing coupled with improvements in social and psychological wellbeing. A more mindful approach to working was also a notable highlight – with strong increases in participants’ ability to control their reactions and responses in the moment, and to act with awareness of emotions and situational factors. Perhaps most pleasing was the significant increase in the reported levels of self-compassion among the participants, because that is the core of being a compassionate leader – how can we demonstrate compassion to our colleagues and wider teams if we are unable to treat ourselves in the same way?

News reports about overflowing A&E departments, backlogs of ambulances outside hospital doors and a struggling health care system were brought sharply into focus by meeting and working with the amazing individuals whose daily work encompasses these pressures, and we hope that what they learnt on the programme will have a wider impact. The reality for the health and care sector today is that the pressures of maintaining high-quality care with increasingly constrained resources are not going away. So with bed occupancy in hospitals running at unsustainably high levels, and increasing pressure across the health system, there needs to be something that leaders can do to protect themselves and their teams. Evidence from high-performing health systems continues to show that compassionate, inclusive leadership behaviours and a focus on quality improvement rather than financial control creates cultures where the people are able to deliver sustainable, efficient and safe care.

In the words of a recent participant: ‘I am calmer and more grounded since attending the programme, and less likely to respond reflexively or emotively. I have reconnected with my self-compassion and the importance of my own wellbeing; this enables me as a leader to have the time to better connect with those around me in the way I talk, listen and behave.’