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Ask an Expert: How can healthcare leaders support compassion in the workplace?

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As COVID-19 strains hospitals and doctors’ offices, it’s more important than ever for health care leaders to model, cultivate and support compassion among their staff—both for their patients’ benefit and the organization’s. In a new literature review, Timothy Vogus, Brownlee O. Currey, Jr., Professor of Management, distills best practices for health care leaders gleaned from leading research in health services, management and medicine.

Tim Vogus (Vanderbilt University)

Actions, Style and Practices: How Leaders Ensure Compassionate Care Delivery appears in the medical journal BMJ Leader. Laura McClelland at Virginia Commonwealth University is co-author.

“When we talk about compassion, we mean that someone does three things: They notice pain, they empathize with it and they respond to it,” said Vogus. “However, telling people to be more compassionate without supporting or reinforcing it can lead to burnout and other negative psychological effects. Leaders can play an important role in helping their employees deliver more compassionate care.”

Vogus and McClelland identify three layers of compassion-supporting practices that leaders can implement:

Daily micro-compassions

The first layer, Vogus said, is for leaders to simply to find ways to demonstrate everyday acts of compassion in their own interactions. “For example, a clinical leader could say to a patient, ‘I understand how hard this must be for you, and I want you to know that I’m going to be with you every step of the way,’” he said. “Modeling compassion inspires compassion in others.”

Likewise, leaders can promote compassion through a practice called inclusiveness. Inclusive leaders invite input and recognize contributions from their staff. This creates a culture where staffers feel their perspectives are valued and respected, and in turn become more mindful of the perspectives of others—a key component of compassion.

Cultivating a compassionate leadership style

The next step, Vogus said, is to incorporate these individual behaviors into a holistic leadership approach that centers compassion in all aspects of their work. He and McClelland highlight “servant leadership”—in which leaders recognize and elevate their employee’s unique qualities, goals, interests and needs—as being particularly effective.

By demonstrating that they prioritize growth and well-being in others, Vogus said, leaders create psychologically safe environments where employees feel comfortable expressing their feelings and needs—even difficult ones—to their colleagues and managers.

Vogus said employees working for servant leaders tend to be more helpful and collaborative with one another, as well as more satisfied and engaged with their work. These qualities, he said, create the conditions in which health care providers can interact more compassionately with patients and each other.

Building and supporting compassion-promoting systems

Finally, Vogus said, leaders can build compassion into their organizations in a number of ways—for example, intentionally screening for compassionate qualities during the hiring process. They can also model, support and reinforce the importance of compassion during training, performance reviews and other routine opportunities.

Another effective way to support compassion is to implement practices that help health care employees process the emotional challenges of their work, in order to reduce burnout and increase resilience. For example, some hospitals have established a practice called “The Pause,” in which providers take a moment of silence upon the death of a patient in order to catch their breath, privately acknowledge the loss of life, and prepare themselves to engage with the family or other patients. A more intensive practice is the Cleveland Clinic’s Code Lavender, which is a rapid response mental health intervention available to patients, family members and providers experiencing acute emotional distress.

Compassion needed now more than ever

Vogus said leaders have an opportunity to mitigate some of the psychological pain caused by the coronavirus crisis by modeling compassion and investing in compassionate systems—if they do so soon.

“Right now, our health care providers are being pushed to the absolute limit by COVID-19,” Vogus said. “The degree of trauma and stress they’re experiencing are going to have a lasting impact. My hope is that organizations will take this opportunity to become more systematic about compassion, because we need to keep our health care workers engaged and healthy. We need to care for the caregivers.”