The profound and enduring effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have magnified our collective consciousness regarding mental health and well-being. The emotional toll of the pandemic, characterized by uncertainty, anxiety, isolation, and loss, has sparked more open conversations about the pressing need to reduce stigma for mental health and foster greater compassion throughout society.
Even some professional regulators, who traditionally operate within strict regulatory rules with limited flexibility, are embracing the evolving priorities related to psychological safety and support. Increasingly, regulators in many professions are approaching their public protection mandate through a compassionate lens, seeking to find a harmonious balance between their regulatory duties and safeguarding the well-being of interested and impacted groups without compromising it.
There is a growing emphasis on acknowledging the often-overlooked psychological impacts experienced by individuals when they interact with regulators, including applicants to a profession, members of the public, or existing registered professionals. Interactions with regulators can be lengthy, demanding, and complex, with significant consequences hinging on the outcomes, and often eliciting intense emotional responses such as confusion, fear, stress, and anxiety.
Why compassion matters in regulation
When engineers grapple with extreme stress, distress, or trauma, it can significantly affect their daily performance. Impaired decision-making, reduced focus and concentration, diminished collaboration, difficulty regulating emotions, and heightened stress responses are some of the responses to these issues. Moreover, engineers facing such issues may be hesitant to seek help for various reasons, including feelings of shame or apprehensions about scrutiny of their ability to continue practising.
The prolonged duration to achieve resolutions to complaints or fitness to practise proceedings could cause reputational damage to the regulator within the professional community. Professionals may lack trust or confidence in their regulator and may perceive that regulators’ expectations are becoming increasingly detached from the realities of daily practice.
Records from the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency reveal that practitioners often experience heightened stress levels and adverse effects on their personal and professional lives when complaints are filed against them. Simultaneously, complainants— many of whom have undergone an emotionally challenging incident to prompt the complaint— frequently express concerns about the lack of clarity and fairness in the complaints process.
Compassion becomes an important component for bolstering regulators’ ability to engage and support those involved in regulation, which may help dispel prevalent notions that regulators and their tools exist solely for punitive purposes.
How engineering regulators can foster compassion
The path toward adopting a more compassionate approach to regulation begins with engineering regulators acknowledging how their interactions may be interpreted and their potential influence on the psychological health and well-being of registrants and the public. For instance, in the United Kingdom, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has added compassion as a core value and a strategic ambition in its current strategic plan.
The compassionate approach does not require compromising professional standards. Instead, it depends on clear and timely communication and emphasizing the importance of regulatory processes founded on the principles of fairness, transparency, and accountability. These principles align with the key tenets of right-touch regulation, another pivotal regulatory framework focused on taking action that is proportionate to the associated risks.
Engineering regulators could potentially enhance their approach to compassionate regulation by implementing targeted behavioural and procedural changes.
Behaviourally, regulator staff could focus on:
- Prioritizing empathetic and emotionally intelligent communication
- Enhancing awareness of the regulators’ role
- Providing clear information about processes, timelines, and potential outcomes
- Minimizing the use of technical jargon or legalese
- Practising active, objective listening
- Extending additional resources or supports when appropriate
Procedurally, strategies to create a more compassionate space within the regulatory framework include:
- Developing templates for routine communications to increase consistency and quality
- Refining the tone of correspondence to be less accusatory and jargon-laden
- Establishing an appropriate frequency of communication
- Acknowledging that certain interactions with the regulator can be stressful
- Focusing on remedial and supportive solutions rather than adversarial approaches
Is compassion a suitable quality for engineering regulators?
Although greater compassion can yield advantages, it raises a valid question about its suitability within a traditionally oversight-focused regime. The regulator's primary duty is to safeguard the public and ensure that only qualified and competent individuals are licensed to engage in professional practice. Adopting a compassionate approach could potentially be viewed as advocacy or unwarranted support for practitioners, exceeding the regulator's mandate or even inadvertently endorsing those who may not be fit to continue practicing.
However, embracing a compassionate approach does not require any deviation from engineering regulators’ protective responsibilities. They can fulfill their mission of safeguarding the public while also taking into consideration the intricacies and nuances of engineers' well-being. This entails recognizing the pressures inherent in engineers’ professional roles and addressing the pain points of regulatory processes.
Delivering compassionate regulation hinges on the crucial understanding that it involves real individuals with unique lived experiences. It is inherently a people-centred model that depends on effective communication, timely assistance, respectful treatment, and the availability of appropriate supports.
When engineering regulators interact with licensees or the public, they have a valuable opportunity to integrate proportionate regulatory interventions with a compassionate approach. Implementing both behavioural and procedural changes can contribute to reducing stress levels or other adverse psychological responses for both registrants and the public.
Ashton, A., Dales, E., Durcan, R., Mitousis, M., and Rosen, L. (2023, October 18) Trauma-Informed Professional Regulation [Plenary session]. Canadian Network of Agencies of Regulation (CNAR), Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada.
Biggar, S., Lobigs, L. M., & Fletcher, M. (2020). How can we make health regulation more humane? A quality improvement approach to understanding complainant and practitioner experiences. Journal of Medical Regulation, 106(1), 7–15. https://doi.org/10.30770/2572-1852-106.1.7
Danson, N. (Summer 2020). The Case for Empathy by Regulators. SML Grey Areas: A Commentary on Legal Issues Affecting Professional Regulation, Issue 248. https://www.sml-law.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Greyar248.pdf
Jeyaraman, K., Robinson, J., and Tooze, S. (2023, October 17) Compassion in Regulation: A People-Focused Approach [Session #2]. Canadian Network of Agencies of Regulation (CNAR), Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada.
UK Royal College of Veterinary Services. Strategic Plan 2020-2024. https://www.rcvs.org.uk/news-and-views/publications/rcvs-strategic-plan-2020-2024/