Talking Point

On the Eleventh Day of Christmas: Compassion

Today our blog is written by someone who gave me such a lot of support when I joined NHS communications, some ten years ago.  The Foundation Trust Network, as it was then (now NHS Providers) was a source of great camaraderie for me, as someone brand new to both NHS and public sector communications; Saffron and I hit it off from the start.  I chaired the communications network for some time and we have remained close colleagues and good friends.

I was delighted to see Saffron, as a fellow communications and policy professional be promoted to the role of Deputy CEO at NHS Providers at the end of last year.  Here she writes powerfully about compassion.


What does compassion mean to you?

When offered one of the twelve cs to write about for the twelve days of Christmas, I chose compassion. I can’t think of a quality more important in any sphere of life – at work, at rest or at play. A world, a workplace, a home without compassion is one that has lost its way.

Compassion can be variously defined; however the definition with which I identify most strongly with is that of “fellow feeling”.

And to translate that in to working life, I may not have been through what a colleague has been through, but I can seek to understand that something is hard/ challenging/ fantastic/underwhelming* (*delete as applicable) and aspire to respond accordingly.

I do not believe I can be an effective leader without demonstrating compassion. I need and want to understand what is ‘going on’ for my team, for my colleagues, for my boss and for my organisation and respond accordingly. Acting with compassion is about bringing honesty to bear in interactions and accounting for them.

It can often seem that compassion is viewed as a less than robust quality or characteristic. However I think that compassion is about showing courage and confidence (two of the other cs of Sarah’s 12 days of Christmas) and integrity.


What importance has it held for you in 2017?

Compassion has been a theme of 2017 nationally and personally.

I think it has been one of the defining qualities of the NHS frontline in 2017. At a time of such great pressure we have witnessed staff delivering care with great compassion day in day out.  However it is also clear that nationally we could do with a bit more compassion in terms of how we treat those leading organisations. Blame is a word that comes to the fore far too often.

At work I have led the establishment of MentalHealth@NHSProviders, a group which both looks after the mental health and wellbeing of our staff, but also raises awareness of mental health issues. In 2017 this has really come into its own, and creating an atmosphere of compassion in how we respond to colleagues has been truly inspiring.

At the end of 2017 I was made deputy chief executive of NHS Providers. I am deeply proud of this, and aspire to carry out this role with compassion and creativity.


Epiphany is all about looking forward. What are your hopes for 2018?

We live in challenging and changing times, in the health service, in the public sector overall, in this country and across the world. I don’t think I have ever lived through such a volatile and unpredictable period.

So my hopes for 2018 are more a more stable, peaceful and compassionate environment, where we can make meaningful progress.


Who are your three wise men or women?

This is a toughy but I’m going to sneakily turn three into four.

So my first place of wisdom is my two amazing friends – Nicola and Jenny. They both have compassion running through their veins, and are the kindest, smartest, loveliest people I know. They are the people to whom I turn automatically when I need support, encouragement or just to test out what I think.

The second two are people who probably don’t even know they figure. However:

Professor Michael West – I have only done a small amount of work with Michael. However I was struck by the deep compassion that guides his work and the two tenets of his approach “listen with fascination; respond with empathy” have stayed firmly with me. Michael’s work is testament to the fact that it is absolutely possible to do the right thing, and at scale.

Jamal Ullah – a teacher from my secondary school. He showed great care, instilled me with confidence, helped me navigate difficult times, and demonstrated the importance of humour and integrity at a young age.


What or whom is your guiding star?

I don’t think I have a single guiding star; rather a constellation! (I hope that’s not cheating.)

In my working life it is, without doubt, all of the 230 plus NHS trusts who are members of NHS Providers. Everything that they manage to achieve, given the daily pressures, is inspirational.

Outside of work it’s activism for causes about which  I feel passionately – in particular defending and promoting the rights of girls and women. There is a lovely German word “engagiert” which literally translated means engaged, but that doesn’t quite cut it. It is more about activism and dedication to a cause. That really motivates and guides me.

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