Making compassion the new normal

Here’s another supply-chain challenge created by the coronavirus: the delivery of more compassion by our governments and public institutions. Every day of the pandemic, we see the consequences when compassion never quite makes it to the people who need it most.

When I use the word compassion, I don’t mean the typical “we’re with you” and “you’re not alone” platitudes politicians are quick to serve up. The compassion I’m calling for is kinetic; it proactively seeks to avoid inflicting harm in the first place, provides demonstrable healing when it occurs and looks to answer society’s wider caring calls.

But that takes leadership. A very different kind of leadership.

The City of Toronto, for example, confronted by the typical problems of large municipalities with vast constituencies of citizens marginalized by poverty, food insecurity, homelessness and mental health issues, has a chief operating officer, a chief financial officer, a chief technology officer, a chief communications officer and a chief people officer. But a chief compassion officer, which I have long been advocating for in major public institutions, is nowhere to be found.

That’s a problem. The pandemic has brought into sharp focus what can happen when the most vulnerable are forgotten. It demands a change in how public institutions approach their job as couriers of care. Compassion needs to be embedded in the organization as a core value with the machinery to deliver it. That brings us back to the chief compassion officer. As the guardian of an organization’s healing and caring virtues, the role is to champion a culture where decisions are filtered through a more compassionate lens.

That means two questions always need to be asked before a major decision is made by a municipal government or public institution. First, will we be harming anyone with what we are about to do, and if so, how do we mitigate that harm? And second, is there anything more we can be doing with this decision to heal those who are suffering and need help? It’s a challenge that requires a skill set somewhere between a Mother Teresa, who can relate to the most vulnerable with a kind heart and a caring ear, and a tough football linebacker, who won’t be sidelined by other powerful actors in the organization.

Had a chief compassion officer been in place last summer, would the City of Toronto have sent in throngs of police and private security to break up homeless encampments? Could what I call compassion guardrails have led to a more peaceful and less alienating outcome?

It’s not just Canada’s largest municipality that needs to re-think its delivery of compassion.

Last summer, the federal government decided to claw back the Guaranteed Income Supplement for 90,000 low-income seniors, leaving them to “survive” on little more than $700 a month, now through a cold Canadian winter. Not even widely reported pleas by advocates and a few high-profile MPs have managed to unblock the government’s clogged compassion arteries.

Examples abound every day where too many find the caring and support shelves pretty sparse.

Even before the pandemic, eight in 10 university students in Canada reported feeling overwhelmed. Mental health experts have been warning for some time about the added emotional strains students face as a result of the virus. Health-care professionals have been forced to work in what amounts to an unrelenting war-like setting for the past two years. Many will likely battle some level of PTSD well into the future because of it. Nurses in Ontario found compassion stuck somewhere offshore when the Ontario government decided to limit annual pay increases to just one per cent, regardless of inflation or the job hazards posed by the virus.

First Nations and racialized communities, people struggling with addictions, essential workers, women locked in abusive relationships, those living with disabilities and so many others still at the lowest income levels were all woefully underserved prior to the pandemic.  Compassion has always been in short supply for these groups. When the virus hit, many bore its wrath disproportionately compared with those living in more affluent neighbourhoods.

The pandemic has also prompted compassion-driven re-thinking in the everyday workplace.

Canada may not yet be facing a “great resignation wave” like the U.S., but some studies report that growing numbers of employees prefer to work at least partially from home to be closer to their families and avoid long commutes. More than that, many are signalling that they want to work for a company that is also motivated by social values like tackling climate change, embracing diversity and combating racism.

Some organizations are beginning to retool their operating model. One major U.S. health-care provider decided to do something about the antagonistic way patients and families are often treated when it comes to complaints about medical errors. Now, lawyers and administrators who handle such complaints will have trauma-informed training. Instead of resorting to the typical deny and defend response, providing compassionate support has become part of the hospital’s healing mission.

Caring actions can indeed have important healing powers. The Canadian military recently issued a long overdue apology to victims of sexual misconduct. That was the easy part. It now faces the huge task of transforming what has been seen as a culture of institutional betrayal to one I describe as a culture of institutional compassion.

The writing is on the wall. From ensuring that residents in long-term care homes are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve to introducing a basic guaranteed income program, Canadians are looking for their most trusted institutions to heed the painful lessons of the pandemic and put caring front and centre.

They don’t want a return to normal on the part of governments, universities, hospitals or the private sector. They want them to make compassion the new normal.

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Kathleen Finlay


Kathleen Finlay is founder and CEO of the Global Campaign for Generative Compassion.

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