Hi, my name is Abi Concannon and I’m a new (part time) member of staff working within the Mental Health and Wellbeing Hub for NCL, now known as Keeping Well NCL. Elsewhere I work as senior lecturer/cohort director for the NHS Leadership Academy’s Elizabeth Garret Anderson programme and have also been working at the Tavi as a 1-1 facilitator on the Practice Supervisor Development Programme. And I have a small private practice. So I wear lots of different hats.
I’m very conscious of the impending string of anniversaries about to cascade – a whole year of not being able to see my clients face to face in my consulting room, a year since the EGA programme was suspended/restarted/suspended to release everyone back into frontline work where necessary, a year since my 20th wedding anniversary trip to Italy got cancelled, a year since we all had to change the way we work and socialise. A year since the world changed irrecoverably. A year that has been tougher than many people realised it would be and yet……. A year when many, many people rolled up their sleeves and got down to the business of supporting each other, thinking together, making decisions in record time, finding creative solutions to previously unimaginable dilemmas. Everyone’s experience has been simultaneously similar and different – overarchingly similar because everyone has been affected by the pandemic one way or another and massively different because we are unique as individuals, are differently privileged and marginalised, seen or unseen, heard or ignored. But there is a thread as well, that I’ve seen running through all the different accounts of experiences that I have witnessed which is about support.
Supporting others – to stay well, to make informed decisions, to remain independent, to understand and accept, to let go, to recover, to learn – this is what many of us were engaged in this time last year – supporting the work of others. And all those people engaged in providing those services, the nurses, therapists, medics, social workers, carers, educators knew that they came to work for a specific purpose which fulfilled the need of the service user/patient/client/student and which also was meaningful for them as an individual – most people having made an active decision to work in their chosen field as a means to enact their desire to support the wellbeing and development of others. What this year has shown, certainly to me and I think to many others is that while we might be quite good at supporting others, and really engaged throughout the pandemic and thinking together with others about how THEY might adapt behaviours to meet unexpected challenges – turning that attention inwards has not been so good or consistent.
So, for example, I remember having 1-1s with some senior social workers at the beginning of the first lockdown and discussing with them in detail the ways in which they might think about how on earth they and their teams were going to keep a separation between their work and home life now that they were effectively living at work, often homeschooling simultaneously and had completely lost the compression/decompression time that a commute provided. We co-devised individual responses that included going out the front door turning around three times and entering back into the home to start work. Sometimes this might include a walk at the beginning or end of the day. Or for healthcare workers they would take their lanyard on and off to signify their being at work – and this became more elaborate to include specific items of clothing. Tiny but symbolic acts that signified to the brain that something of the old routine might still be alive and serving a purpose. We devised ways of managing the tyranny of the online meeting invites inserted into calendars. We talked about how colleagues could be drawn into service in terms of accountability for taking a lunch break or finishing work at a certain time. Really basic stuff. And all the time that I was doing this work, encouraging managers and leaders to model behaviours to their teams and reports, I was sitting eating breakfast and lunch at my desk, sometimes not going outside all day, taking on more and more work whilst simultaneously trying to ensure my teenage children were engaged with online education – you get the picture? I definitely wasn’t practising what I was preaching in those early days and it made me very conscious of the need that propelled me originally into this field of work – the desire to help – and that this had gone into a kind of overdrive. This sense of desperation that there was always someone who needed more and the pull to try and meet that need.
And so discussions with colleagues began to emerge – about how as professionals we were used to providing support and of course making use of the systems of support in place e.g. supervision and peer engagement that contained and challenged our experiences of undertaking that work but that the pattern had changed. Whereas a more linear experience existed prior to the pandemic, where a person with a need was matched to a suitably experienced/qualifed professional who could lean into their system (more or less) in order to meet that need , the blurring of the personal /professional boundary when WFH/LAW and the many harrowing stories of those having to leave home to go and work in unimaginable scenarios created a new and different pattern. More like concentric circles of support – with those in the middle working at the front line and those in subsequent circles providing increasing layers of scaffolding to hold everything in place. But what happens to the outer circle – where is the support for the people who occupy that space? The circular model is flawed. If we work on the premise that everyone, everywhere needs support in some form or other, that the most experienced clinician and the newly qualified social worker both need support, that the carers need support. That I need support and you need support – if we can accept and embrace that then I wonder what more we might be able to provide for each other. A network rather than a circle or a line. In the Keeping Well NCL Hub, this is what I hope to be part of – a network of Keeping Well groups and resources where we can take care of each other and provide spaces for resting and thinking together, reflecting on the past, present and future, providing support and receiving support so that rather than a scaffold, we create an architecture that looks more like a network of fungi which flowers and migrates to where there is a source of, in our scenario, need. one that can adapt and respond in real time to all the challenges we are able to imagine. And some that we can’t.
In the meantime, I go for a walk before starting work. I take a lunch break. I put do not disturb on my calendar. I try really hard to practice what I preach. I feel better. I am better at my work and feel less overwhelmed. I check in with my colleagues. You get the picture?