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Compassion starts with self-compassion

by Sarah-Jane Dale & Michael West

22nd April 2021

Self-compassion is at the heart of our relationships with others and is key to our ability to model and embody compassionate leadership. Self-compassion is the starting point for creating compassionate teams, organisations and health and care systems.

What is self-compassion?

We give ourselves a hard time. On occasion, we feel as if we don’t fit in, that we’re unworthy or incompetent. We criticise ourselves and respond with feelings of rejection, shame or low self-esteem.

By practising self-compassion – being caring and nurturing of ourselves – we can face these challenging thoughts and feelings more readily. If we pay attention to our emotions, we learn how to recognise our feelings, investigate them, accept them and handle them.

Why is it important?

There is a tendency for people to see such introspection as soft and woolly. Recently however, we have been reflecting more and more on how self-compassion is fundamental to compassionate and inclusive leadership, and an innovative and sustainable workforce.

It is a particularly important lesson for those people working in health and care.

It is almost impossible to be consistently caring and nurturing of others unless we treat ourselves with the same love, care and compassion. Yet many who work in caring environments feel unworthy or less deserving than their patients or colleagues.

A culture of compassion

So, if the extent to which we can be compassionate towards others depends on how compassionate we are towards ourselves, our working lives must enable this to be so. But how?

Compassion has to be our core value, and the core value or culture of our organisations and the way we live. It is crucial that workplace cultures emphasise rest, self-care and decompression as a key priority and an equitable component of practice. This must be clearly communicated and modelled by leaders at every level.

The challenge is to create a culture in which staff are supported and motivated to practice self-compassion. We must create space. It is our responsibility to make time – for the wellbeing of those we care for and for our own wellbeing.


During this pandemic, recovery is an important part of self-compassion in health and social care, and we recommend the work of psychologist Sabine Sonnentag and colleagues at Mannheim University in this area.

Some intuitive but empirically-supported findings from this research include:

  • those whose work is most stressful are least likely to engage in optimal recovery activities,
  • psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery and control all aid recovery in non-work time,
  • work breaks (especially proper lunch breaks without chores) help a great deal,
  • vacations are valuable, though effects fade within a week or two,
  • physical activities/exercise are highly beneficial,
  • natural environments enable recovery particularly blue (sea, lakes, rivers) and green (forests, hills, fields) environments.


Upcoming book release:

AOD thoroughly recommends Michael’s next book “Compassionate leadership: Sustaining wisdom, humanity and presence in health and social care” – due for publication in 2021.


  • Brach, T. (2019). Radical compassion: Learning to love yourself and your world with the practice of RAIN. London: Random House.
  • Sonnentag, Venz & Casper, (2017). Advances in recovery research: What have we learned? What should be done next? Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 22, 365-380.
  • West, M. A. (2021). Compassionate leadership: Sustaining wisdom, humanity and presence in health and social care. Cardiff: HEIW/Swirling Leaf Press. (due for release)

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