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  • Writer's pictureSigne Jung Sorensen

Finding Compassion in Challenging Times: Reflections on the Pandemic and Public Policy





"Going through hard times yourself makes you more compassionate. You are able to resonate and recognise when others go through a tough time too."

— Rupal Patel


In this conversation, Rupal Patel shares her personal experience of the emergence of compassion - and self-compassion - during the pandemic and how it relates to how she perceives her impact and work environment in public policy in the United Kingdom.


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This article features in a series of interviews where Signe Jung Sorensen explores how purpose-driven professionals who are dedicated to contribute towards a just, equitable and sustainable world relate to the notion of “compassion”. What does compassion mean and look like in practice in our professional lives? What opportunities, challenges and tensions arise when we think of applying compassion? This series is dedicated to professionals offering their personal stories and perspectives.


 

Rupal Patel is an economist working in UK public policy. She holds a MSc in Economics from the London School of Economics and BSc (Hons) in Economics and International Economics from the University of Nottingham. Rupal is enthusiastic about improving economic literacy around the UK, particularly amongst young women. Outside of economics she enjoys travelling and cycling along London’s canals.


 

SJ: What particularly resonates for you when I mention the word “compassion”?


RP: The word “compassion” has emerged more recently for me with the arrival of COVID19. I associate it with being kind to yourself and others, empathy and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.


“Compassion is a tough word for me because I think of it as “self-compassion” and being kind to yourself first, thinking about other people’s needs at the same time if you can — and this is a hard thing to do.”

SJ: How do you relate to compassion from a work perspective?


In a professional setting, I work mainly with macro policies which I do not necessarily associate with compassion. I feel like micro policies are more compassionate where you are targeting a specific set of people. For example, developing policies to support businesses during the pandemic, where there is a more direct impact of the policy.


“First order effects of a policy on a more targeted group of people feels more compassionate to me — both because you see an immediate impact as well as faster results.”

Of course, if I work with assessing and adjusting macro policies this might also have a positive impact on people — it just does not seem very direct in helping. It is perhaps the second or third order effects of that policy that will impact individuals in a supportive way.


SJ: You mention that compassion is a word you have come across during the pandemic — particularly in relation to yourself. How did you cross paths with it?


RP: Like everyone, I had a really hard time during COVID19 and went through challenges in my personal life. I would talk to friends who would tell me that I was being too hard on myself. I picked up some self-help books for the first time in my life and there was a lot about being kind to yourself and not expecting too much of yourself.


There have also been quite a few messages in society around compassion with the arrival of the pandemic, for example around helping your neighbour. I have seen many people volunteering to distribute food and generally extending help to others where needed.


“I think going through hard times yourself makes you more compassionate because you are able to resonate and recognise when others go through a tough time too.”

SJ: How has the experience been for you in terms of applying self-compassion in practice?


RP: It has been difficult. I have never had to rely so much on other people as I have had to now, which is good and bad in a way. It has brought me a lot closer to my family and friends and made me more appreciative of them and also more appreciative of my job.


On the other hand, it has been quite difficult knowing that you need that support when you did not need it before, which has been quite a hard thing to accept.


“My experience of opening up about my needs and challenges has made me more in-tune with other people.”

SJ: What has been the most difficult part about self-compassion for you?


RP: I think guilt and especially having to ask someone to support you even when you know they are perhaps also struggling. In reality, everyone has been more than fine and happy to listen to me and help me. In the beginning I apologised to friends for needing their time and they have all been asking me: “Why are you saying sorry?!”


SJ: What have you learned about the guilt?


RP: It is completely unnecessary and not real!


SJ: You mentioned that recognising compassion has also made you more appreciative of your job. Can you elaborate on that?


RP: Partly because my job has been a great distraction when things have been tough personally (laughs). Joking aside, I think mainly because it has anchored me in knowing that I can help in some way. It is nice to know that I am doing something to try and improve the world a bit more. It is the reason why I went into economics and working in the public sector in the first place.


“Through hard times, if one thing I have achieved that day is try to have some impact in some form or another — it feels quite nice.”

The pandemic has also made me see that the policies we work on can really affect people in a compassionate way too. Policymakers sometimes get a reputation for sitting in an ivory tower having no idea about what is going on in real life. During the pandemic, I would say this has shifted considerably. It is nice knowing that the institution you are working for is responding to immediate needs of people.


SJ: How has the compassion you have felt and seen in society spilled into the work environment?


RP: It has spilled over in so many ways. As I was dealing with my own struggles in my personal life, I noticed colleagues checking in on me a lot more — more than I thought I could ever have expected from colleagues.


More generally, there has been a shift in meetings where personal check-ins on well-being has almost become a routine. I have also seen senior management making sure people go for walks and leave the house every day, taking breaks and encouraging reducing working hours where possible. If I needed to take a few days off work, I could do so no questions asked, which I think is very compassionate.


Offices have also been open to people who have struggled at home or who are living alone during lock-down, which I have been taking advantage of. A supportive community has been built around this small group of people going in, which I have found to be a very compassionate environment to be in. We are there for different reasons, knowing we are going through some form of hardship and good at checking up on each other. Interestingly, the majority has been women.


“Working in a male-dominated institution, it has been the first time that I have felt surrounded and supported by so many women.”

SJ: What are you hoping will be carried forward from all these compassionate experiences?

I hope we will all continue to check-in on each other because I think many people suffer in silence. A lot more people have opened up to me after I have opened up to them, and I hope that continues.


“Professionally, I hope that people are generally taking the opportunity of the pandemic to evaluate if they are doing enough to help other people — both in a crisis but also outside of crises.”

I see people thinking about career changes to move into something that helps people more directly and I hope they will be acting on it. Even if it is not a career change, perhaps it is taking up volunteering and feeling the immediate impact of helping people.


S. What final thoughts do you have on this topic?


While I have no proof of this, I think that to have real compassion you need to be able to sit in another person’s shoes. To do so, you have to go through something close to what they are going through yourself to fully comprehend everything.


“I think people who have gone through hard times definitely come out more compassionate on the other end.”

 

This conversation is based on Rupal Patel’s own personal views. They do not represent any organisation that Rupal works for or has worked for.


 

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