Kindness in nursing: why it’s more important than ever

As healthcare pressures mount, small acts of kindness – not just by nurses, but to nurses – can make difficult situations bearable

As healthcare pressures mount, small acts of kindness – not just by nurses, but to nurses – can make difficult situations bearable

Picture: iStock

Kindness is one of the first characteristics nurses are told they must display.

Yet when I qualified as a nurse in 2005, the word kindness did not feature in the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s code of professional conduct. It was introduced to the revised code in 2008 and today is prominent in the document’s first section, which states that nurses should ‘treat people with kindness, respect and compassion’.

This makes me wonder if prioritising kindness is a recent phenomenon in nursing. And it also gets me thinking about the role kindness plays in cancer nursing, for staff as well as for the people we care for at what is often the most vulnerable time of their lives.

The increased focus on the importance of kindness is evident not just in nursing but in society in general. The sudden and shocking death of television presenter Caroline Flack in 2020 brought to prominence the Be Kind Movement. The ‘be kind’ slogan is now seen on clothing and stationery, and is a hashtag on social media – where kindness can be at a premium. Businesses are getting on board too. While checking into a hotel recently, I noticed their ‘guide to kindness’ displayed at the entrance, advising its customers to be considerate towards one another.

Huge impact of small acts of kindness

In healthcare, there is an art and a subtlety to the kindness I see displayed by patients, families and colleagues.

As an experienced cancer nurse, witnessing small acts of kindness can have a profound effect: seeing a patient’s relative give someone else’s family a lift home so they can stay with their loved one longer and not have to rush for the last bus home, for example, or a colleague bringing you a cup of tea when they know you have had a difficult conversation with a patient. These acts of kindness are so small as to be missable if you’re not paying attention, yet they have a huge impact on people’s well-being.

‘To enable staff to give kindness they also need to receive kindness from those around them’

Importantly, kindness conveys openness and generosity, it lacks judgement and is respectful of the other person, giving people dignity. Kindness requires us to pay attention to the other person and acknowledge their point of view and situation. It stops us focusing on our own needs and causes us to be other-centred – patient-centred.

As nurses, when we succeed in doing this the thank-you cards from patients and relatives show us that our acts of kindness are remembered and valued. Nurses are remembered for how we make people feel rather than the tasks we complete. Kindness requires us to listen and understand, to draw out feelings and preferences. Even bad news can be delivered in a way that makes patients feel valued and cared for.

Picture: iStock

Ethos of Maggie’s centres

The cancer charity Maggie’s prides itself on being ‘everyone’s home of cancer care’ by creating beautiful spaces where everyone is welcomed and valued.

They are places where people can be as they are and their feelings are listened to and accepted. Maggie’s recognises ‘with kindness’ as one of the four key principles of its culture, encouraging staff to be unhurried and ‘present’ so people can be supported to deal with the challenges that cancer brings.

Time and staffing pressures do nothing to promote kindness

Nurses have always been expected to be kind and most genuinely seek to be so. Perhaps the increased pressures of time, patient safety and staffing levels mean the kind of environment needed to foster empathy and understanding is more difficult to cultivate.

Unkindness can occur for a variety of reasons, sometimes because we are fearful. Perhaps we are in a situation where we lack resilience, perhaps we fear lack of time or loss of face. Unkindness can cause a feeling of difference, a distinction between ‘us and them’, and it can cause us to dismiss others.

To enable staff to give kindness they also need to receive kindness from those around them, and from their working culture. Acts of kindness can help diffuse negative emotions and make difficult situations manageable. As pressures on health services increase, acting with kindness is more important than ever.

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