'The love that dare not speak its name’: the role of compassion in social work practice

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The concept of compassion has little prominence in social work literature or in social work curricula, in contrast with those of nursing. This is despite compassion being a valued attribute of social workers from the perspectives of service users. This article considers the meaning of compassion, possible reasons for its absence from social work parlance and its potential contribution to social work practice. Whereas empathy is seen as comprising affective and cognitive components, compassion is defined in terms of affective and behavioural elements. More specifically, compassion is perceived as comprising both of ‘feelings for’ the person who is suffering and a desire to act to relieve the suffering. The desire to act is distinct from the act itself. Focusing primarily on the ‘desire to act’ component of compassion, the article suggests that the emotional health and mental well-being of social workers may be enhanced, rather than jeopardised, by acknowledging, facilitating and nourishing compassionate relationships with service users. It proposes that the emotional risks to social workers emanate not from the toll of feeling compassion for those in distress, but rather from a thwarting of their desire to act to alleviate suffering. It is argued that organisations have an important role in facilitating compassionate practice and possible avenues are considered to bring compassion into the fold of social work education, practice and research.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1688–1705
JournalBritish Journal of Social Work
Issue number6
Early online date31 Oct 2019
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2020


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