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News | Thursday, 30th January 2020

Learning disability professionals need more support to provide compassionate care, research suggests

Staff burnout and a target-driven approach lead to series of workplace recommendations 

Learning disability professionals need more support to provide compassionate care
Learning disability professionals need more support to provide compassionate care

More needs to be done to support and encourage professionals working in learning disability services to deliver the best possible compassionate care, according to new research.

Compassion is one of the NHS’s six core values, however research suggests that people working in learning difficulty support services struggle to foster compassionate relationships with patients due to time pressures, being short staffed and a lack of resources.

They also report an absence of self-compassion, which could be causing burnout – exhaustion caused by stress – and secondary trauma, which is emotional distress from the trauma experiences of others.

The research, published in the British Journal of Learning Disabilities, provides recommendations for healthcare employers to incorporate compassion into practice. 

Hope Brennan, who completed the research as part of her master’s degree dissertation at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “A better understanding of the experiences of compassion of the professionals who work within learning disability services is fundamental, as the people they support require and desire compassion in care. For many of these people, care without compassion is not care at all.

“The impact of work-related stress for health professionals is significant within this area of health care, and so it is important for those in the healthcare system to consider research that identifies shortcomings in compassionate care – it is their responsibility to promote a culture that fosters compassion for all.”

Experiences and understandings

In a series of interviews and questionnaires, all participants acknowledged that compassion is a necessity when supporting people with learning difficulties.

Features of compassion that they frequently used, included: empathy; the importance of compassionate communication; the importance of reflecting with others; and understanding the people they support.

However, researchers found participants’ values around compassion often conflicted with the procedures valued by their services. The pressures of time, being short staffed and a lack of resources left support professionals feeling stretched when required to provide compassion to service users.


Self-compassion can take many forms, such as kind self-talk and self-care, or finding time for reflective conversations with colleagues to help relieve stress.

Despite recognising the benefits, many of the professionals said barriers impaired their ability to be self-compassionate, such as work and home-life demands.

A third of participants described being happiest after observing the positive effects their compassionate care had for people with learning difficulties, but a quarter of participants said they had taken negative experiences home with them.

The future

Sarah Parry, Clinical Psychologist and Practice Fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University, who supervised the project, said: “It is clear that more needs to be done to support healthcare services to nurture a culture of compassion, for staff as well as patients. Findings from this study imply that there are very real barriers to compassion in the daily working lives of healthcare practitioners, both in terms of self-compassion and compassionate care.

“If compassionate care is prioritised over a target-driven approach, the outcomes could be improved for patients, practitioners and services overall. Enhancing positive experiences of treatment for patients through compassionate care and greater professional satisfaction for practitioners would likely result in less burnout and reduce the turnover of staff. Therefore, healthcare services must take some responsibility for supporting their staff to nurture a culture of compassion, through which all could benefit.”

Recommendations made by the researchers include the introduction of more supportive supervision and group reflexive spaces. They also recommend exploring the compassionate attitudes of candidates during the recruitment stage of employment to establish the significance of compassion of interviewees and evaluate their compassion values.

Twelve healthcare professionals from learning disability services across the North West of England took part in the study.

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