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Compassion in the practice

Why aren’t we more compassionate towards each other at work when we can be so caring and thoughtful about our patients?

20 June 2018, at 3:06pm

There is a new field in brain science called “social neuroscience”. It analyses the impulses in two individuals’ brains when they interact and shows that the default wiring when one person senses that another is in distress is to help. The “mirror neurons” feel with the other person and we are automatically prepared to help. The question is, why don’t we?

I wrote last month about self-compassion and observed that people can be delightful to complete strangers they meet for the first time while the same person may be hideous towards a sibling. As vets and nurses, usually we find it easy to be patient, empathic and caring to our clients and yet so often we don’t spare a thought for our colleagues with whom we spend so much of our lives. 

There are many reasons for that, varying from dislike to complete self-absorption to narcissism. But lack of compassion in the workplace is noticed by the clients, reduces productivity and increases absenteeism.

What causes an apparent lack of compassion? 

A recent experiment was done at Princeton Theological Seminary; a group of theologists were told that they were going to give a practice sermon. They were each given a topic for their sermon: half were given the parable of the good Samaritan who stopped to help a stranger in need by the side of the road and the other half were given various random bible topics. Then they were told to go to the next building and give their sermon. 

As they walked to the next building, they passed an actor who was bent over by the side of the path moaning in pain and clearly in need. Did they stop to help? Some did, and some didn’t. What was of interest was that it didn’t make any difference whether they had been in the group who had been studying the good Samaritan or the other group. What determined whether they stopped or not was whether they were in a hurry and running late or not, and how absorbed they were in their sermon so that they hadn’t noticed. 

It shows that we may not take the opportunity to help because our focus is in the wrong direction to make that possible. Sometimes our focus is entirely on ourselves. Sometimes it is on another task or simply not on others.

So how do we change? And why would we want to? 

Not only does mutual compassion in the workplace make for greater productivity, happier clients, happier teammates and greater job satisfaction, being compassionate to others has a profoundly satisfying effect on ourselves. Imagine the typical scene of the elderly poorly sighted lady trying to cross the road. We help her across the road, she’s happy and we feel amazing. So simple.

Most of us get a buzz from having half a dozen cases on the go. Where it prevents us from being a good citizen of the practice and from being a great team member is when it stops us from noticing the others

Driving mindfully and considerately, allowing others to pull out where they need to and thanking those who allow you onto the road all feel calming and wholesome. 

At work, we are in a perpetual state of multitasking – and that’s good – it feels good and we get things done if we can multitask efficiently. Most of us get a buzz from having half a dozen cases on the go. Where it prevents us from being a good citizen of the practice and from being a great team member is when it stops us from noticing the others. And we don’t notice that we don’t notice. 

Now I’m not promoting a workplace culture where we have group hugs at staff meetings or bake a compassion cake every Friday. Not at all. 

But what separates us from sociopaths and Machiavellians is the fact that we can be compassionate towards our colleagues. And if that makes us feel good about ourselves and motivates us to do more then it’s a win-win situation. 

Compassion is derived from empathy. I introduced the three types of empathy in November’s issue of Veterinary Practice magazine. With cognitive and emotional empathy at the forefront of our minds, compassion will naturally follow and become part of us which brings reliable and repeatable satisfaction.

Laura Woodward has been the surgeon at Village Vet Hampstead for over 10 years. Laura is also a qualified therapeutic counsellor and is affiliated with the ACPNL and the ISPC. She runs Laurawoodward.co.uk – a counselling service for vets and nurses.

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