The importance of spirituality for palliative care professionals

Categories: Care.

According to NICE QS13: Quality standard for end of life care for adults[1], spirituality is defined as:

 “…those beliefs, values and practices that relate to the human search for meaning in life. For some people, spirituality is expressed through adherence to an organised religion, while for others it may relate to their personal identities, relationships with others, secular ethical values or humanist philosophies”.

Spirituality can therefore be clearly understood as intimately connected with the values that guide our lives as human beings, whatever role we find ourselves in.

An essential skill for medical and nursing teams to provide excellent care and support for palliative care patients and their families is the undertaking of an ‘holistic assessment’; an assessment which includes physical, psychological, social and these spiritual dimensions. 

In order to assess the spiritual needs of a patient and to support him/her, healthcare professionals should possess advanced communication skills such as empathy, active listening and emotional intelligence.

Understanding our own spirituality

Understanding the values that inform our own spirituality and enhance our professional qualities helps us to address the spirituality of others; patients and colleagues.

It becomes important, then, that there is a match between the personal values of a healthcare professional and the overarching ethos of organisations that deliver palliative and end of life care. Literature has shown that this can be a key factor in maintaining resilience[3] and compassion satisfaction[4] in healthcare professionals, which in turn helps to ensure the delivery of the best care for patients and families.

With this in mind, I have recently undertaken a project exploring the concept of spirituality amongst a select number of healthcare professionals at St Helena Hospice and Colchester Hospital University NHS Foundation Trust.

I wanted the project to encourage these professionals to share their views on their own spirituality with each other and consider how these might help to deliver excellent care for patients and families.  I also hoped that these discussions would encourage peer learning from colleagues based on their personal experiences.

Informal group sessions

The project took the form of informal, small group sessions lasting around an hour each. There were five facilitated sessions in total, leading with the questions:

  • “Think of someone who is a role model to you; which quality of theirs do you like best?”
  • “What do you think is your best quality or what quality are you working towards?”

The aim of these questions was to begin to clarify participants’ values and to establish whether/how these values reflected the ethos of both the hospice and hospital. 

Some participants found the second question about their own best quality difficult to answer; I noted that in each instance they were supported by peers who helped colleagues select their best trait.

The teams in each session went on to discuss the relevance of all these qualities to the delivery of patient and family care, identifying which qualities were essential for teamwork.  They were then able to talk about challenges they had faced in practice and how they had or could use these qualities to overcome them.

Key individual qualities

Some of the key individual qualities identified included being caring, kind, supportive, truthful, honest, and compassionate. Qualities identified for teamwork included: motivation, passion, self-awareness and colleague support. Sessions also covered discussions about values and morals and how they influence personality and development.

It was concluded that knowing about one’s thoughts, emotions and behaviour leads to greater self-awareness, something that is intrinsically linked with the concept of spirituality.

Recognising where values come from and how they create distinctive differences in people’s personalities can help inform how emotions and behaviour can be changed and managed, particularly in a professional environment. Developing an individual’s emotional intelligence in this way is essential for both personal and professional development and the provision of excellent patient and family care.

My wish was to make those involved with the project more self-aware and to promote the sense of teamwork by allowing them to recognise both their shared qualities and those that allow them to work at their most effectively together.

‘We felt connected’

One participant commented: “We felt connected and stronger as a team to deliver patient care and to support each other. We will continue to share our views and the team is very interested in sharing their experiences and learning from each other.”

Going forward, I am planning on continuing these sessions on an ad-hoc basis, to facilitate frequent discussion about strengths and weaknesses and continue to improve self-awareness. Ultimately, a better understanding of the self allows for a better understanding of a patient or family member and therefore underpins the provision of excellent care.


[1] [homepage on the internet]. NICE: QS13: Quality standard for end of life care for adults; 2011 [updated October 2013; cited 10 April 2014]. Available from

[2] McAllister, M. & McKinnon, J. The importance of teaching and learning resilience in the health disciplines: A critical review of the literature. Nurse Education Today. 2009; Vol. 29: 371–379

[3] Fernando, A. & Consedine, N. Beyond Compassion Fatigue: The Transactional Model of Physician Compassion. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management. doi: 10.1016/j.painsyman.2013.09.014 [Epub ahead of print] [Accessed 15th April 2014]

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