A compassionate formulation of task drift in mental health staff

Publication Date21 June 2013
AuthorAngela Kennedy
SubjectHealth & social care
A compassionate formulation of task drift
in mental health staff
Angela Kennedy
Angela Kennedy is Consultant
Psychologist at Tees,
Esk and Wear Valleys NHS
Foundation Trust,Durham, UK.
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to reflect on the novel use of the compassion focused
formulation framework, to give thought to the ways that staff can be distracted from their primary task. It
aims to examine systemic ideas for supporting staff to be effective and compassionate in their mental health
Design/methodology/approach – This paper is a reflective piece using qualitative data and experience to
frame the information.
Findings – Staff have a variety of ways of coping with the stress of their work and some of these ways are
more helpful than others. The formulation framework creates a helpful structure for understanding these
strategies in a non-blaming way. This facilitates reflective practice and the model points to ways that
compassionate organisations can help staff in their primary task.
Originality/value – The CFT formulation has not been applied systemically in the literature to organisations
or groups of staff.
Keywords Staff stress, Compassion focused formulation, Task drift, Compassionate management,
Stress, Employees
Paper type Conceptual paper
This paper outlines a framework for developing and maintaining a compassionate focus in our
work in mental health. It discusses:
1. the nature of the stress inherent in working with people with severe mental health problems;
2. the use of a compassionate framework to reflect on the protective strategies employed by
staff to deal with the challenges of their work; and
3. a compassionate framework for services that will support mental health staff in their primary
task of work.
Compassion can be defined as a sensitivity to suffering and a motivation to do something about
it (Dalai Lama, 1995). It is “behaviour that aims to nurture, look after, teach, guide, mentor,
sooth, protect, offer feelings of acceptance and belonging – in order to benefit another person”
(Gilbert, 2005, p. 217). It is a social mentality that has evolved as part of our need for attachment
and affiliations. That is, it is part of our social brain (Goetz, 2010; Gilbert, 1989). In this sense
it is central to mental health work, whatever the profession, and forms the basis from which the
primary task can be carried out. However, the stress of working with illness, trauma and
disturbance in other people can make it difficult to stay attuned to feelings of distress and this in
turn can distort the reactions and behaviours of staff (e.g. Menzies Lyth, 1960; Firth-Cozens and
Cornwell, 2009). Without the capacity to tolerate the suffering, the motivation may waver or be
deflected and therefore the aim of services will not be fulfilled. McLelland (2010) measures the
compassion of an organisation as the degree to which its routines are likely to facilitate such
noticing, feeling and responding to suffering.
DOI 10.1108/MHRJ-01-2013-0001 VOL. 18 NO. 2 2013, pp. 73-82, CEmerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 1361-9322

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