Compassion in health care starts at the top, VCU researcher finds

Leading and creating systems of compassion results in better care, according to a VCU College of Health Professions expert in a recent paper.

Two people holding hands.
In her research, VCU's Laura McClelland found that compassion has many benefits including easing stress and fostering an atmosphere of caring and collaboration. (Getty Images)

COVID-19 has heightened the stress and trauma experienced by health care workers. The suffering and losses have been devastating, but within that devastation, stories of compassion have surfaced that offer hope for humanity.

In her research, Laura McClelland, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Health Professions, found that compassion has many benefits including easing stress and fostering an atmosphere of caring and collaboration. Leaders who embrace compassion instill trust and resilience in their staff and create a culture of kindness and empathy that benefits both health care workers and patients.   

With efforts such as “The Pause” to honor a patient’s death and Schwartz Rounds to allow health care workers to process the emotional consequences, VCU Health puts these principles into practice, said Lisa Ellis, M.D., executive director of patient and provider experience at VCU Health. Ellis underscored the importance of McClelland’s research.

“Laura does a phenomenal job at targeting the essence of compassionate leadership and all of the downstream effects which follow,” said Ellis, who also serves as an American College of Physicians-appointed wellness champion at VCU Health. “VCU Health leadership teams are embracing this with a systems-wide approach to mitigating burnout. We are on the path to openly aligning value systems and enhancing purposeful psychological safety approaches.”

VCU News interviewed McClelland about the major points of her recent paper, “Actions, Style and Practices: How Leaders Ensure Compassionate Care Delivery,” published with Timothy Vogus, Ph.D., of Vanderbilt University, in medical journal BMJ Leader on April 30.

What struck you in your research about this topic?

This paper translates research into a review of best practices, including a lot of the work that I do that focuses on the business case for compassion — why it is good for patients, employees and health care organizations. The goal of this article is to help health care leaders understand those benefits and how leaders play a crucial role in creating and sustaining compassionate care as well as compassionate cultures.

Why is leading with compassion so important in health care, especially now?

Pandemics like COVID-19 drastically amplify the demands placed on health care workers, and they are experiencing extraordinarily high stress, strain and trauma on the job. That takes a huge toll on them. We need healthy workers in order to fight COVID-19. Compassion functions like an antidote. It buffers employees from stress and strain on the job and also helps people recover when they aren’t at their best. Leaders can set the tone and they can create the scaffolding that ensures that compassion happens.

What are some concrete ways health care leaders and systems can make compassion a core part of their approach to leading?

-  Micro-acts of compassion are a simple and powerful tool: Leaders are role models, and when they show compassion, even in small ways with their tone and their words, people pay attention to that. When employees see their leaders show compassion, they are reminded to look out for one another, to take care of each other.

-  Being an inclusive leader and making people feel psychologically safe: Great leaders make people feel safe to speak up, even if it’s to share bad news. Compassion is about noticing suffering and trying to help. It’s a lot harder to notice that employees need help or know how to help them if they are too afraid to say anything about what they need and how they are doing.

-  Leadership style: Leading with compassion is first and foremost, putting people first and trying to bring out the best in them. Employees are much more collaborative when they work for leaders who put their well-being and development as a top priority.

-  Creating compassionate systems: Health care organizations are increasingly utilizing practices that sustain compassion. Bundling practices such as screening for compassion during hiring processes and reinforcing compassion through recognition efforts help, and using practices that directly support employees who are suffering makes a big difference.

Pandemics like COVID-19 drastically amplify the demands placed on health care workers, and they are experiencing extraordinarily high stress, strain and trauma on the job. … Compassion functions like an antidote. It buffers employees from stress and strain on the job and also helps people recover when they aren’t at their best. 

Are there lessons leaders outside health care could take from this research?

Absolutely, stress and strain aren’t unique to the health care industry, and the fact is that employees in every industry regularly deal with struggles at home that affect them too. Financial problems, loss of a loved one, divorce or so many other common life events weigh on people and can get in the way of the work. Most of these practices apply across industries. Hiring people who will look out for their colleagues and their customers, rewarding employees for caring for one another and creating support systems to help employees who are going through tough times are practices that can be applied across a variety of industries. Numerous studies show that compassion matters for employees, customers and organizations when leaders intentionally hardwire compassion into the fabric of their organizations by showing compassion, placing a priority on employee well-being and ensuring the organization tries to care for its employees and customers.

Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you think is important to know on this topic?

COVID-19 has drastically impacted all of us. The scale of suffering, not just from the virus itself, but its indirect effects too — job loss, food insecurity, housing insecurity, financial well-being, mental health issues, etc. — may be greater than anything any of us will experience in our lifetimes. Yet, the glimmer of hope in all of this darkness is also what COVID-19 has exposed — so many stories of compassion. Every day we hear stories of how compassion heals, helps and uplifts us as individuals and as a society. These stories continue to show us that when we lead with compassion, when we look out for one another, we are all stronger and more resilient because of it.

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