Do managers lack compassion?

Public sector senior managers have been accused of being obsessed with hitting performance targets and making budget savings indifferent to the impact on people. So do public sector managers lack compassion, have they stopped caring? 

Senior managers have to make unpopular decisions, they make staff redundant, close hospitals, transfer services, cut pay, get tough on absenteeism and sack people who underperform. They impose new ways of working, new shift systems and increased workloads despite objections from staff. To be effective they have to be “hard”, focused and unsentimental.

These managers are not going to buy a sob story, an individual’s personal circumstance can’t influence their strategic decisions. It’s not surprising that they talk of bed blocking and delayed discharges as financial and performance issues rather than as an elderly vulnerable person being hurried into making a life changing decision to give up their home.

Running the NHS like a business means leaving the “caring” to the nursing staff. There is no contradiction in being tough with staff but expecting them to be “kind” to patients. Or is there? If you treat staff like any other resource, like money, buildings and equipment, to be used in the most effective way then is it so surprising that some of them treat patients as objects to be cared for, washed, dressed, feed and toileted.

 If the unemployed, people on disability benefits, families on housing benefit, offenders on probation, daughters caring for an elderly parent suffering from dementia are to be treated with compassion then politicians need to stop referring to skivers and scroungers or the burden of an increasing elderly population and start referring to the vulnerable, the disadvantaged and those in need of help and support. 

If you wish to teach managers compassion you start with how they manage staff. You teach them how to be skilful and confident people managers. If you want them to stop thinking of health and social care as a product then you focus on the difference between a customer and a patient. If you want public sector managers to see the people behind the numbers we need to talk more about helping ,supporting, improving quality of life and less about targets, performance and value for money.  

Blair McPherson is a former Local Authority Director and author of People management in a harsh financial climate and Equipping managers for an uncertain future both published by Russell House



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