EHS-COVID (492) HLH Learning Brief: The role of compassion in maintaining EHS during the COVID-19 pandemic

4 December, 2021

The word 'compassion' has been used 77 times already on HIFA in 2021, compared with 27 times in 2020 and just 9 times in 2019. This increased focus on compassion is largely thanks to WHO's support of our current discussions on Learning for quality health services and Maintaining essential health services during COVID-19 and beyond. The WHO Global Learning Laboratory for Quality UHC describes compassion as 'the heart of quality people-centred health


This learning brief from the WHO Health Services Learning Hub explores the interface of our two thematic discussions: The role of compassion in maintaining essential health services during the COVID-19 pandemic

Below are the key learning themes. Read in full here:


Compassion arises from:

Awareness of human suffering.

Emotional resonance with that suffering (empathy).

Action (or a desire) to relieve that suffering.

In other words, awareness + empathy + action = compassion.

Compassion fuels commitment and innovation to address global health threats, like the effect of COVID-19 on disruption of essential health services, healthcare worker burnout, and collective social trauma.

On an individual level, the biggest impact compassion can make in the delivery of health services is recognizing the whole person, both for those who give and those who receive health services.

On a health provider level, compassionate support of health care workers is critical to their well-being and personal resilience, to mitigating burnout, and to the sustainability of the healthcare workforce to maintain essential health services.

On a leadership/organizational level, it is necessary for organizations to build cultures of compassion - looking after staff and each other as colleagues enables organizations to serve populations in maintaining essential health services. “Be well to serve well”.


I invite HIFA members to share your thoughts about the role of compassion in maintaining essential health services. Can you share any examples of personal experience of compassion in your work, whether emanating from yourself, colleagues, relatives or patients? Some people have suggested one can have too much compassion, but my understanding is that the opposite is true. Too much empathy alone will indeed lead to burnout, whereas compassion is boundless and protects against burnout.

Best wishes, Neil

Neil Pakenham-Walsh, HIFA Coordinator,