The new normal for the NHS team needs to include self-ISH-ness.
After continued weeks of Zoom meetings, remote client sessions and homeschooling, I’ve come to realise (again) that taking care of myself is harder than I’d realised.
The biggest challenge in self-care is noticing that you have needs when they don’t scream out at you… and let me tell you, being ‘informed’ is not a protective factor, wellbeing is a way of ‘being’ not thinking.
Four years ago, after an extremely stressful series of clinical and life experiences, my own GP told me, “You’re not working now, for 6 months… no discussion, Doctor’s orders”. I didn’t see it coming and it took months after to realise that I was in recovery. My GP told me I was depressed and I scoffed, a Clinical Psychologist… depressed? …I think I’d know it, if it were true!
I’ve come to learn, that there is a lot I didn’t know about myself and how to stay well.
I am now the CEO of Project5.org, leading the delivery of mass-scale wellbeing support for the NHS staff team — in an effort to provide early intervention support to my vocational peers in the hope that early support can scaffold the team to survive and thrive. I face the greatest challenge yet, how to raise the awareness of being well (at work), or as it is better known “wellbeing”.
The word ‘being’ is interesting as it is both a noun and a verb. I can be described as a well being (mentally, physically and socially well) or I can be well being, as in acting well in how I act, feel and think. This is problematic, as I think that most of us consider that we are well unless there are signs that we are not — without the skill needed to monitor, notice, review and adapt.
Few of us regard wellbeing as a process of living that may need support when the world around us gets in the way. We have narratives about fighting on, beating disease.. but rarely about stopping and accepting that the best you can give to a crisis, sometimes, is to give to yourself.
I’ve spent years working with 1,000s of clients who arrive at the end stages of poor mental, physical or social health. Very rarely did any of them seek any help until it all fell apart or a helpful GP intervened, much like my own story.
I have spent hours wondering how being well can be encouraged in the lives of those who are working tirelessly, under stress, without it looking irrelevant or for somebody who is in more need.
Our website currently talks about support and help, for wellbeing. The language makes no sense to me, but I am at a loss for better words. I have never felt the need for support or help when I’ve been stressed in my clinical work, I have always felt it was just what the job entails.
I remember discharging an elderly patient after years of working with him, to manage crippling pain. I’d go as far as to say that he was a friend of mine, we’d spoken for 90 minutes every 2 weeks for 2.5 years… more than I see many of my family members. He was able to reconnect with his hobbies, his wife and a sense of freedom after years of lonely depression. A rare success story, in a career of complex mental health work.
Within weeks of our welcomed goodbye and one of a handful of hugs I have ever given to a patient, I was standing next to his wife and adult children, in ICU, as he was in a sudden coma and dying of a cancer nobody had seen. His wife introduced me to her children as a part of the family, and my heart sank. I aided them to say their goodbyes, reassuring them that he may be able to hear them and that they needed to speak before it was too late. We all cried. I returned to my office, where my clinic was stacked and I dusted myself off, before meeting my afternoon of clients — all terminally ill. Another day, another pay-cheque. This was my normal, for many years. And never, did I feel like a hero.
I was trained for this job. I had a fancy title. I had a pile of certificates. I had an office. I had a secretary. I had peers. I had supervision. I had every reason to believe that this was ‘manageable’ — until it wasn’t.
Even after my own awaking… I remain unclear on how we raise the narrative about being well and showing vulnerability. Our NHS people are just that, people. Consultant, Dr, nurse, porter, domestic, admin… every person has a life, a need to be nurtured and a threshold where thriving becomes surviving. Every one of them has the personal responsibility to ensure that they are well and the need to be compassionate to themselves. But many may not have this insight or awareness.
I was asked in an interview this week who the service is for, I answered “anyone with an NHS badge who feels that work is hard”. I laughed to myself after the interview for being so naive, as work being hard was true from day 1 of clinical training — hard was never a marker for need and I’m not sure it is yet.
Culturally, we need to help people to realise that the word ‘hard’ has many facets. We don’t want heroes, as there are many stories of selfless heroes dead on the fields. We want professionals who self-care and work towards sustainability. I hope to see the NHS survive, as in the people feel they made it through ‘well’ ’and took whatever they needed to get there.
I now live my life with one eye on the pace that I work at, I need help (from my coach) on the level of energy I expel when I work and in creating the ability to notice when I am stressed. I spent years focused on my patients and seem to still struggle to place myself above others when it is appropriate to do so. This bit of selfishness is what we all need to be well.
(a slight diversion here — I’ve often discussed with clients the word selfish as a barrier to putting yourself first sometimes. Self-ish is to self as blueish is to blue, a little bit of self not totally about your self…that’s being egoistic. Selfish is definitely unhealthy if it never appears in your life!)
Creating self-need in professionals who trained to give to others, in a crisis — that’s quite the feat. But this is the call to action for our society and one we might be missing every time we call an NHS staff member a hero.
Look towards your NHS carers and suggest that they might want an hour of reflection, with the light on their needs. This is common practice for corporate leaders who make critical decisions in the business world — why not for those making life/death decisions or whose actions can affect the lives of others. I include EVERY NHS staff member in this statement, no member is outside of critical to the whole team.
Point these people to www.project5.org. They don’t need to feel that they need to, they just need to notice that everyone needs to look at themselves and their own needs from time to time… for that reason alone.
Reflect on what you need
Give it to yourself