A Safe place to land: The central importance of compassion in the public sector’s recovery from COVID-19

Many will have read the poem from an unknown author highlighting that,

‘we are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.’ 

I believe that to be true.  In this short blog I want to share some personal and professional reflections that might help to develop this analogy further and explore how the public sector can recover from the effects of COVID-19 and fundamentally transform.  As we pass through this storm, it feels important that the population and public sector workers find a safe place to land. But how do we build this harbour and what makes it safe?

A safe place to land

Father’s Perspective

I want to share what it has been like as a Father, caring for my middle daughter who has been quite seriously unwell for a couple of years.  Her symptoms are not unlike those who have been diagnosed with ‘Long COVID’.  And yet it isn’t the details of the illness that I want to share, it is our experience as parents who for the first time needed the public sector to stabilise our boat and save us from going under.  At times I had an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.  All of a sudden, we were surrounded by professionals.  A guidance teacher, paediatrician, physiotherapist, advanced nurse practitioner and a visiting teacher. Our experience was on the whole, excellent. However, there were a few occasions when I could see how the system could get in the way of improving my daughter’s outcomes.  At one point it felt like a significant decision was being taken without us.  This reinforced a feeling of powerlessness and felt uncomfortable because we knew our daughter best and could see the outcome of the decision could potentially be harmful for her. 

But there were also so many good experiences to share.  We knew that the guidance teacher had our back.  She argued our case when we couldn’t.  She ‘understood’ our situation and helped us push back against the ‘system’ to develop person-centred solutions. We had a kind visiting teacher who developed a plan that involved just the right amount of teaching.  The Paediatrician listened to our story, asked insightful questions and provided reassurance.  At the end of one appointment, she said to us, ‘I wish I could do more for you.’  Of course, we needed her expertise to make the diagnosis, but it was her listening and compassion that was particularly impactful.  The Physiotherapist gave us the tools to affect change.  At the end of one of our conversations with her she said something that I’ll never forget, ‘Listen, you two are doing a great job.’  It wasn’t patronising. It was calming. She knew it was what we needed to hear to stop the boat listing.

The look of hope after a long winter

Leader’s Perspective

Let me turn now to the staff in the public sector and my perspective as a leader in the NHS.  I am concerned that following the trauma of COVID-19 that we face a tsunami of ill health, brokenness and disengagement.  What will it take to prevent their boats sinking and ultimately help them find a safe place to land?  When my daughter got sick, as a family we had to ask ourselves what we needed to stop our boat from sinking.  As a leader, I have found myself asking similar questions when it comes to our staff.  What will it take to prevent their boats sinking and ultimately help them find a safe place to land?’

Covid 19 has necessitated changes to the health service which we may not have thought possible this time last year. Health services around the world have been irrevocably changed by the pandemic. We can’t go back to where we came from, but we now have an opportunity to move forward and create an environment for staff where there is space for compassion.

Staff need access to compassionate and healthy working environments if they are to recover, innovate, improve outcomes and in turn, show compassion to the people they serve.  And I believe this new harbour will stand or fall on the strength of four pillars.

  1. Compassionate leadership
  2. A healthy culture
  3. Sustainable workload
  4. Sustainable wellbeing initiatives.

I believe that you need all four pillars in order to develop a healthy working environment for staff.  I can only briefly cover two in this blog, but I have written about culture here: https://ahpscot.wordpress.com/2020/02/21/wheres-the-joy-in-the-public-sector/

Compassionate Leadership

Compassionate leaders as defined by Michael West:

are those who take a genuine interest in their staff, who value diversity, who take time to listen and to be with their staff, respond empathetically and are prepared to do something to alleviate distress’.

Some see this as weak leadership, but I fundamentally disagree.   In order to lead with compassion and strength, I believe it is important to include staff in decisions and be willing to give up some of your power.  I think ‘command and control’ leadership is required at times but using your position to control people is the easy way out, and one where you leave short-term change and moral injury in your wake. In contrast, an approach that prioritises relationships leads to long term transformation. 

Well Being Initiatives

Many staff simply can’t engage with online, operationalised wellbeing initiatives. They are too busy bailing water out of their boat. These are the staff for whom creating a compassionate, safe work environment is the most important.  So how can we help staff to find a safe place to land?  I believe the answer to this question reflects some of my personal insights detailed above.  At a basic level, how staff experience colleagues and leaders right in front of them can be key to guiding them to less rocky shores.  That is, being treated with dignity, respect and compassion.  Time spent listening and connecting with real people who show that they care and understand. We instinctively know that this is right and there is a flood of high-quality scientific research that demonstrates the power of compassion to heal, both physically and psychologically. But this requires permission and space for leaders to prioritise the core needs of staff and to see compassion as a necessity… our core business. 

Conclusions

My experience of the public sector as a father, has given me greater insight into what can make a real difference. It has given me fresh impetus as a leader within the NHS to invest time and energy to build a safe place to land.  A harbour built on the four key pillars of compassionate leadership, healthy cultures, sustainable workload and effective wellbeing initiatives. Let’s build a new harbour.  A safe place to land both for our staff and for the people we serve. 

About the Author:

Glenn Carter leads the Children’s Speech and Language Therapy service in NHS Forth Valley. 

Follow Glenn on Twitter: @Glennetal

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