‘Compassion (which is an element of loving-kindness) involves being open to the suffering of self and others, in a non-defensive and non-judgemental way. Compassion also involves a desire to relieve suffering, cognitions related to understanding the causes of suffering, and behaviours – acting with compassion. Hence it is from a combination of motives, emotions, thoughts and behaviours that compassion emerges.’ (Gilbert, 2005)
As we write, the world is extremely concerned about the Ebola outbreak. Viral haemorrhagic fevers make carers’ proximity to their patients dangerous and the protective equipment severely limits communication. The staff experience anguish because of the lethality of Ebola but also because very restricted personal contact with their patients limits their ability to express compassion and there are wide sociocultural impacts on western Africa and elsewhere (Ravi & Gaudlin, 2014). Perhaps there are lessons that could be learned from this awful epidemic and disasters generally about the nature of compassionate care and the care and support that staff require in order to sustain their work in more ordinary circumstances.
The staff of health services are renowned for their resilience and resourcefulness under pressure. Provided that resources are sufficient and the environment conducive, and they are well led, the quality of healthcare services is substantially related to the values and capabilities of the people who work in them. Public expectations are that staff consistently deliver effective, evidence-based care and interventions sensitively and compassionately, even if the environments in which they work are not optimal. However, there are, from time to time, lamentable lapses in the quality of care that patients receive and, despite an increasing focus on corporate and clinical governance over the last 20 years, there continue to be high-profile instances of catastrophic system failure in which organisations fail to deliver the minimum standards of compassionate care (Francis, 2013; Andrews & Butler, 2014).
This chapter focuses on the importance of providing staff within mental health services with effective leadership, support and care in order to sustain them. It is our evidence-informed and values-based position that doing so is likely to enable staff to continue to consistently deliver compassionate care for their patients.