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A compassionate workplace culture leads to better care, says social innovator


Compassion is a skill that can make a vital difference to aged care clients, Mary Freer tells Ann Deslandes.

There is weighty scientific evidence that the conscious practice of compassion in a health or social service can dramatically improve outcomes for clients. This is why, for social innovator Mary Freer, compassion is no “soft skill” or “fluffy idea”.

“I see compassion as something that is muscular; at times tenacious, and often requiring courage,” Freer tells Australian Ageing Agenda.

Mary Freer

Through her consultancy Freerthinking, Freer uses her concept of “compassion labs” to work with leaders in the sector to develop positive work cultures.

She is advising SA Health on aged care service reform and recently presented on compassion at the Aged and Community Services Australia conference in Adelaide.

Freer developed Compassion Lab after completing the Westpac Social Change Fellowship, for which she was selected by Westpac’s Bicentennial Foundation in the first year of the fellowship being offered in Australia.

“I had this idea that compassion was a force we needed,” says Freer.

Prior to undertaking the fellowship, where she met many social leaders working with the idea of compassion in Europe, United States and the UK, Freer had founded a social movement called Change Day Australia in 2014.

Using social media platforms, Change Day Australia invited people in the social and community sectors to do one thing that would improve the lives of a customer, patient or client.

“It could be anything – small or big,” Freer explains. “Over three years we got around 100,000 pledges from all around Australia. In the third year, I noticed that by far and away most of the things people were pledging were linked to the sort of culture in their organisation,” she says.

“They would pledge things such as being more supportive of their colleagues; asking people how they are and stopping to hear the answer; managing the stress in their team in a more supportive way; wanting to be more client-centred; and offering love and happiness to their clients.”

After returning from overseas and learning in particular about compassionate leadership in the UK, Freer says she wanted to add something to the world that would help people do the kinds of things they had pledged.

“And I wanted it to be experimental – I didn’t want to create anything that felt fixed. I wanted to offer people an opportunity to explore what compassion means in their work … it felt like a lab.” Thus, the concept of Compassion Labs was born.

A compassion lab takes form in several different ways according to the needs of the leader or organisation that Freer is working with.

She leads retreats for executive teams, two-day workshops, and works with leaders to “make your own organisation into a compassion lab” designing strategies for building positive work cultures.

“People learn about the way they treat each other as colleagues and co-workers and the impact on the people we care about or for.”

That includes being presented with the neuroscientific evidence about the impact of compassion on the parasympathetic nervous system and in relationships at work, she says,

Freer works with participants on regulating the body and mind to perform compassion at work, and on building a culture at work “that is robust, psychologically safe, that has the opportunity for people to work at their highest level – to get joy, and share learning across boundaries.”

Freer’s career in the health and social services sector has included leadership roles in service management, policy development and workforce development, so her “compassion intervention” has been carefully crafted to support people in this sector.

In residential facilities in particular, “we want people to go to work feeling that their organisation has inspiring values,” she says.

“People who work in aged care choose to go to work to provide care to elderly people; to make peoples’ final years as wonderful as they can be.”

A work culture that includes the active practice of compassion means that workers are as supported as possible to do that job, says Freer.

Freer understands that leading a positive work culture like this is often extremely challenging for organisational leaders – running counter, even, to the many regulatory and policy requirements that organisations are under pressure to meet.

In aged care services, she observes that “we can easily fall prey to a reactive environment where we run from one inspection to the next, always having to be worried about compliance.”

Instead, Freer’s Compassion Lab manifesto starts with the words: “Say hello to right now. Slow it right down so space can emerge. In that space we find opportunity for forgiveness, kindness, love and generosity. Busy is the old black.”

If Freer has her way, compassion will be the new one.

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2 Responses to A compassionate workplace culture leads to better care, says social innovator

  1. Dan Meek February 3, 2018 at 12:21 pm #

    I’m a fan of Mary Freer’s work but I can’t read this article, because it’s in a super-low contrast font. I’m 37yo and my prescription is only +2, so imagine how people with more serious eyesight problems find it. A lot of sites have this problem and I use the zoom tool in my browser as needed — but you’re Ageing Agenda! How are you not across this?

  2. Jasmin February 3, 2018 at 6:40 pm #

    What a great articlel! A much needed reminder that putting the feeling & thinking person first is always better for client & worker outcomes.

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