Business Leadership Today

Compassionate Leadership in Healthcare


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

No other group endured the daily brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic more than healthcare workers. The stress of working in this field, so close to the heart of the chaos, took a physical, mental, and emotional toll on these workers.

According to a survey conducted by Mental Health America in 2020, 93% of healthcare workers were experiencing stress, and 76% were experiencing exhaustion and burnout. It is reported that 20% of employees in the healthcare field are disengaged.

These statistics are concerning when you consider this Johns Hopkins study that found that medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. The good news is that even a small (1%) jump in worker engagement leads to a 3% reduction in hospital-related complications and a 7% reduction in hospital readmissions.

So how do leaders in the healthcare field ensure they are creating a work environment that is conducive to high engagement and avoids the stress and burnout associated with overwork? Through compassionate leadership.

Compassionate leadership in healthcare means understanding how to show compassion to team members, as well as patients, and that healthcare workers will serve patients much more effectively and with greater compassion when their leaders demonstrate compassionate leadership behind the scenes. 

This article will explore what compassionate leadership means, why it’s important, and ways healthcare leaders can demonstrate compassion toward their staff members. 

Compassionate Leadership Defined

Compassionate leadership is what you get when you mix traditional leadership skills with a hearty dose of empathy, sympathy, and compassion. 

Sympathy helps us feel sorrow for another’s misfortune. Empathy helps us understand and share the feelings of another. 

When we are compassionate, we move beyond feelings of sympathy and empathy and take action to relieve the suffering of others. The compassionate leader doesn’t just dispense empathy, they take actions to relieve suffering. 

Why Compassionate Leadership Matters

Developing compassion can help us to engage and retain talented employees because it creates a positive work environment where employees feel truly valued. When employees are able to do their work without compromising their well-being, it results in better engagement, better performance, and better retention. 

In fact, employees who work for compassionate managers are 25% more engaged in their work, 20% more committed to the organization, and 11% less likely to experience burnout. And compassionate leaders are perceived as stronger and more competent by those they lead.

In healthcare, compassionate leadership can be particularly effective at helping staff stay compassionate toward patients. 

Greater responsibilities and the resulting pressure of taking on those responsibilities can rewire our brains and cause us to stop caring about others as much as we used to. We may find it more difficult to empathize with others when this happens.

There is a particularly high risk of this occurring in the healthcare setting, where compassion fatigue can be a real issue. Leaders should be mindful of this phenomenon and understand that it is possible to avoid it. 

How to Lead with Compassion

The key to compassion, and what differentiates it from empathy, is that compassion spurs us to act to alleviate suffering. The compassionate leader doesn’t just dispense empathy, they take actions to relieve suffering.

Here are five actions that can guide the compassionate leader:


When employees feel their voice is heard, they are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to do their best work. Active listening is essential to helping employees feel empowered to do their best work and helps leaders interact with their team members compassionately. 

Employees also need to feel heard to feel valued, especially during difficult times when they may be experiencing stress that makes their work more difficult.

Listening to your team members is crucial for inspiring them to do great work. Unbiased listening leads naturally to understanding, which is so important for building compassionate, trust-based relationships.


Awareness is an important part of compassionate leadership. To lead with compassion requires a leader to not only be aware of what’s going on with their employees, but to also demonstrate self-awareness in all interactions with them. 

Self-awareness refers to a person’s ability to accurately perceive their emotions and remain aware of them as they occur, and it is essential to leading conscientiously.

A strong sense of self-awareness is indispensable to compassionate leaders. It guides them in all their actions and behaviors and helps them be more aware of the feelings of others so that they can take compassionate action. 


Empathy helps you understand and share the feelings of others. A recent study by Catalyst found empathy may be one of the most important leadership skills because of its positive effects on innovation, engagement, retention, inclusivity, and work-life balance. It is also a central component of compassionate leadership. 

Compassionate leaders show empathy toward their staff and take the time to understand where they are coming from, especially in difficult times, to help them avoid burnout and experience better well-being. 

Compassionate leaders listen with empathy, understand with empathy, lead with empathy, and encourage empathetic behaviors in their employees. 


As with empathy, the pandemic showed us the need for patience in the workplace. Workers can come up against the impatience of others many times during the workday. While it isn’t feasible to expect customers to always be patient, leaders can always show their teams patience. 

You never know what some of your employees are going through. Being patient with them when they struggle, especially in difficult situations or times of uncertainty, can build trust. 


In “The Servant as Leaders,” Robert Greenleaf said, “There is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led if, implicit in the compact between servant-leader and led is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something they share.” 

This idea of healing is central to compassionate leadership. Compassionate leaders recognize that leadership provides them with the opportunity to improve people’s lives and help them overcome and heal from past hurts. 

With toxic workplace environments driving so much of the turnover we’ve seen with the Great Resignation, the ability to heal the wounds inflicted by negativity through compassionate leadership is an increasingly important leadership skill. 

How To Be a Compassionate Leader in Healthcare

According to the Journal of Healthcare Leadership, collective learning strategies combined with high levels of staff support and engagement are key to creating the framework for compassionate leadership in healthcare.

“Developing leadership for compassionate care requires acknowledging and making provision for the difficulties and challenges of working in an anxiety-laden context. This means providing appropriate training and well-being programs, sustaining high levels of trust and mutually supportive interpersonal connections, and fostering the sharing of knowledge, skills, and workload across silos.” 

Healthcare workers need the time to reflect on their work, learn from their mistakes, and identify ways to improve. Leaders can assist their employees in this endeavor by giving them the time to reflect and encouraging them to view errors as learning opportunities. 

Leaders can also help employees perform well and stay engaged with their work by ensuring they have a healthy work/life balance. 

Work/life balance is something most workers need to feel satisfied in their jobs. With the toll the pandemic has taken on healthcare workers, work/life balance has suffered tremendously. 

Providing support for staff with work-related anxiety and offering self-scheduling, which offers flexibility and more control for the employee, are just a few of the ways to improve work/life balance.

Compassionate leaders who truly value employees utilize strategies that will improve the work environment at every level and truly caring for employees will help lessen burnout and work-related stress and anxiety, with the added bonus of improving engagement and retention. 

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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