Compassionate Leadership: Caring for Yourself and Others in Times of Crisis

By Martha Staeheli, Director, Childhood Trauma Learning Collaborative and Instructor in the Yale School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry


Leaders often have to balance multiple and competing needs in their “teams” and organizations, including increased workloads, vicarious trauma among staff, student and family needs, and scarce resources. Characteristics that make leaders good at their jobs—compassion, perfectionism, toughness, practicality, and integrity—can also make them more susceptible to feeling like they can’t do enough, ignoring their own needs, feeling powerless, and making it harder to ask for help when they need it. School and mental health leaders face an even more significant challenge: caring for themselves while maintaining compassion and attunement to the strain on their staff, students, or clients. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased our exposure to toxic stress, trauma, exhaustion, and burnout. That is particularly true for people in caregiving roles, like school mental health providers and educators. So, how can leaders address the needs in their workplaces and guide teams to success?


Leaders are Balancing Complex Priorities

People in leadership roles have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to make change for themselves and the “team” of people around them. Burnout and exhaustion cannot be eliminated solely by workers taking better care of themselves and practicing self-care. However, we are avid proponents of how essential it is to do that! Healing from the challenges we’ve faced requires an organizational and systemic approach. Leaders are vital to establishing healthy teams and organizational culture that prioritizes mental health, wellness, and work-life balance by cultivating leadership rooted in compassion and trauma consciousness. Developing policies and structures that reflect these concepts establishes a work culture that honors staff as people first, reducing burnout and exhaustion and making space to address vicarious trauma and toxic stress. In schools, a compassionate and connected work environment leads to higher satisfaction levels, more robust performance, and increased health and well-being for leaders, staff, and students. See this article for more about the importance of trauma-informed leadership.


Leading Compassionately with 10 Key Strategies

How can we begin being more compassionate, trauma-conscious leaders in times of crisis? It starts with caring for ourselves and establishing our priorities and vision for our leadership approach and then looking at the bigger picture to see how we are and are not acting in ways to support those priorities and that vision. The ten principles below, based on our work in the New England MHTTC Provider Well-Being Initiative and our Compassionate School Mental Health Model, help us be more mindful of our own needs, roles, and responsibilities in the context of leading our teams.

  1. Learn more about yourself and your people: Compassionate leadership begins with knowing more about yourself and your team. The people you lead are your biggest asset and it’s crucial to understand who they are and what they need to make informed decisions.

  2. Take care of the basics: For you, that might mean paying attention to caring for your overall health and wellness through eating well, resting, getting physical activity, or tending to your health conditions. Leaders must make self-care an explicit priority and ensure that policies and practices reflect that focus on all of the domains of wellness.

  3. Rethink your work: To be happy and well in work, people need to feel that they are being challenged and supported by their supervisors and colleagues in an equitable way that offers them choices. How are you structuring your work to provide support, options, and challenges to your team?

  4. Work on healing trauma: As you are thinking about your team and your work, consider how you and they might have experienced trauma and how you could support healing. To learn more about trauma-informed healing, check out this resource.

  5. Address stress and be mindful: It’s crucial to think about how you and your team spend their time and energy and then rebalance when needed. Consider whether you (and your organization) might be augmenting or reducing those stresses and whether you are providing adequate time and support for stress relief.

  6. Honor grief: Many of us have been silently struggling with grief, so we must begin by acknowledging and understanding that grief. It’s also important to understand what to look for when grief becomes depression and find help.

  7. Cultivate connection: None of us can do this work alone, and building and maintaining connections to others is crucial for preventing crises and promoting resilience. Building relationships should be foundational and continual work, so look into ways to model connection and offer time and opportunities for your team to connect around your work in meaningful ways.

  8. Regain a sense of control: Trauma & stress can make you feel like you have lost power (or agency) of your body or life, so reintroducing healthy strategies to regain control can promote resilience and healing. You can also create a vision with your team for how you want your work to look and provide opportunities to offer feedback and advocate for themselves.

  9. Focus on strengths: You and your team will do your best work when identifying, celebrating, and working with your strengths. That might include making time to exhibit gratitude, celebrate yourself and members of your team for your accomplishments, speaking with love and compassion to yourself and others, and giving yourself and your team the benefit of the doubt.

  10. Rest and reject “more”: A key characteristic of successful leaders is setting and maintaining boundaries and using the word “no” strategically. Foster a culture where the expectation that more work doesn’t always mean better, where it’s okay to know when you’ve done enough, and where rest and time off are honored.

Depending on your workplace, some of these principles might be easier to enact than others, but don’t have to be overwhelming; use the ones that work for you and be compassionate with yourself in developing a leadership style that works for you. These principles can offer an opportunity for reflection about your leadership and offer food for thought in connecting and co-creating a vision for your team. Considering a compassionate and trauma-conscious approach to leadership can help us all establish healthy and productive teams, prevent challenges before they arise, guide our navigation of crisis, and focus on our resilience.

To learn more about how to employ these strategies and others to become a more compassionate, mindful, and trauma-conscious leader, join us for our upcoming webinar, Compassionate Leadership: Preventing and Addressing Compassion Fatigue and Burnout on October 6th at 3 p.m. ET.



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