in2gr8mentalhealth speaking at British Psychological Society staff wellbeing conference, Brighton 20
The questions asked are, what can we DO to support staff wellbeing in psychology and the psychological therapies?
We need to attend to the stigma about having lived experience of mental ill health as helpers. We need to talk about this more. The latest information from research at the UCL unit for stigma research, and staff wellbeing audits from the New Savoy Conference/ British Psychological Society, tell us about the prevalence of lived and current experience of mental ill health through the training and qualified populations in clinical psychology.
Wounded healers have forever been a part of the helping professions, this hasn't changed for centuries, and it won't change ongoing and simply needs to be accepted as part of humanity and part of the profession. Those burning out, stretching under what seem like impossible tasks in toxic underfunded services...that can change.
So, what can we do? We can accept who we are in this workforce. We can have open and candid conversations about the gifts that lived experience brings, ways of navigating professional pathways when we need to rest, and we can put a full stop to any abuse about it.
Directors, managers and supervisors on mental health have lived experience, maybe more can find it in themselves to model the presence of this. It really is just a human situation.
HR and Occupational Health need to evidence their training in understanding mental health assessment and, importantly, recovery planning on return to work. Companies need to be trained to understand how non-linear routes to recovery work and evidence protections and support for staff in roles, graded planning together with clinical supervisors. Psychologists have a clear role to play in helping here. The 'business society' needs to understand that if they work their workforce as if they had no heart, the workforce will lose it's heart.
Staff need to know their rights, they need advocacy and a union. Too often we don't allow ourselves the same support we would suggest to those we work with. Organisations have to be responsible and held to account and speaking needs to be made easier at points of vulnerability. And that vulnerability should not be feared, isn't that simply a projection of how much the other fears their own vulnerability? I'll stop short of mandating analysis for all (half joking).
There are pragmatics about how an organisation runs when people need to rest, this need to rest happens for many who don't have a mental health challenge, they have a physical health one, or a family one, or something else. Perhaps working options for staff could be thought out/ laid out more clearly as various pathways for resting and recovering which can be more simply chosen at points of vulnerability. Organisations will lose talent or drive people into the ground if they can't work with people. There will always be people struggling with mental ill health, as with physical health, this just needs to be accepted and properly planned for in the workforce. The people who are struggling should not bear the wrath of organisations who haven't thought through their planning. Unless organisations want to work with robots, then crack on. Why the denial of the fact that people will be unwell for whatever reason?
We need to attend to the fragmentation of services and chronic underfunding, leading to staff within burning out. Burning out is particular to working within a toxic environment in any organisation or field and can happen to anyone. In health? Professionals crying in corridors, limping home shadows of themselves from their shifts, attending as best they can to the high demand of humans accessing services in a country suffering under austerity and inequality, in fear of loosing the compassion that drove them into the health workforce on the first place...to make a difference.
What can we do to improve staff wellbeing in psychological therapies and psychologists? We can see that it is a chain of interlinked priorities. It needs a full systems response, from the intrapsychic - helping with the pain experienced by the individual staff member, to the extrapsychic - attending to the work environment and policies and procedures in HR and Occupational Health, to stamping out and reporting stigma, abuse and harassment, to clearly informing those in government, from an evidenced base, about the funding needed to invest in the fabric of our health service, the workers who are in it.
Whether we are wounded healers, or whether we are people without lived experience of mental ill health but who are now burning out in sick organisations (or both!), there needs to be a firm stand within psychology and psychological therapies to make sure that good wellbeing work is shared not silo'd, and boundaries are drawn in the sand and vexes are voiced where there are deleterious experiences.
As psychologists and psychological therapists we know about the importance of boundaries to protect health, it is time to speak up through the system and use them to protect ourselves and therefore to protect those we serve in the community. This nurturing is instigated so that it can be passed on. There is no containing of the other, the service user, without containing the container itself, the workforce. Those of us who have broken down and are therapists, understand the importance of our ethics about this, we stop to attend to our self care and healing, so that we can then help others again (some might like the oxygen mask on a plane analogy). This is competence in action and those negotiating this 'move to heal' pathway with all due responsibility and conversation should be respected and praised for doing so, especially when stigma is still so rife! We need to rethink what 'competence' encompasses.
I'm looking forward to speaking candidly at the conferencee on 8th June, details here
Dr Natalie Kemp