Happy New Year to all of you.
About a year ago I read an article in Community Care magazine about compassion in healthcare. It’s stuck in my mind ever since, because it addressed a problem that had been bugging me for years, which goes something like this: when our response to ‘wrongs’ (eg discrimination, abuse, bullying) is mainly to strengthen policy, legislation and regulation, we run the risk of undermining the very thing we are trying to nurture, namely positive engagement with others (colleagues, customers) on the basis of voluntary goodwill. This is because the mind that responds to the fear of judgment is the enemy of the mind that leads us to willingly give, and be, our best. For me, this problem besets not only health & social care provision, but also equality & diversity (E & D).
Let’s unpack this a little: the whole point of compassion is that it allows people to be who, and as, they are – and to receive really good attention for what is important to them. For us to give compassion requires an expansive state of mind, in which there is space for both empathy and skilfulness. In health and social care, professional competencies and deliverables are inseparable from this skill set. Most of us can experience this expansive state of mind under the right circumstances. Yet it can become fragile when we feel under threat. Which is exactly what can happen when our profession is adversely judged or under great scrutiny. It takes a highly trained mind not to abandon compassion and empathy in favour of ‘survival mode’ when under this kind of emotional or cognitive load.
When things go wrong in health and social care it’s very serious. Leaving aside technical competence, failures of compassion alone can lead to poor communication and practice. People can get hurt. They can die. Understandably, we want to reach for big solutions: ‘policy’, ‘regulation’ – even ‘legislation’. The trouble is that, if we are not careful, ‘big solutions’ become ‘big sticks’: in reaching for them we risk creating the kind of environment which is bereft of both empathy and compassion precisely because our remedies carry messages of judgment and threat which – if delivered unskilfully – will undermine exactly the kind of culture that breeds compassionate care.
To put it bluntly – if our practical response to human failings over-stresses generalised measures which are experienced as punitive, we can trigger collective withdrawal of goodwill among the very people whose willing co-operation we need to in order to achieve our very important goals. Instead of creating the conditions of learning, we create a kind of collective ‘amygdala hijack’.
This is not an argument against policy, regulation, or legislation. It is an argument for fostering workplace environments in which the conditions exist where people are likely to want to do, and be, their best – both for themselves and for those they serve through their work.
Equality and diversity, similarly to health and social care, is a field in which moral judgments, policy statements and legislation loom large. When we work in the field of equality and diversity, just as in health and social care, we need to balance measures which carry punitive messages (often conveyed through policies, legislation, regulation) with ideas and practices which foster a sense of safety, belonging and being valued. When people feel threatened – whether because of job cuts, heavy-handed or ineffectual management, excessive workload or having the misdemeanours of their professional colleagues scrawled across the front pages of the national press – they have a pressing need to feel a sense of recognition and security. This is not a touchy-feely, ‘feel-good’, luxury: it’s a necessity if we want them to do, and be, their best.
In my next blog, I use the logic of this argument to look at the paradigm shift in the field of E & D which began to point us in the direction of Inclusion.