Neelam Solanki – Junior staff experiences during a global pandemic

Hello, my name is Neelam Solanki and I’m an Assistant Psychologist working at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. I work primarily within the National i-THRIVE Programme Team, however, I was redeployed at the beginning of lockdown to work on a few different projects within the Trust, one of which was here at Together in Mind.

I started at the Trust in February 2020 and was working in my role for about four weeks before we went into lockdown, and my experience from there on has been a little bit “all over the place” to say the least. I found that I was only working for about two sessions (a day) per week in terms of my actual job role, and otherwise I found that I was being asked to help whoever needed it for whichever project, whenever they needed it. Initially this was really exciting and it meant that I got to know a lot of people within the Trust who otherwise I may not have met, but after a while it became exhausting and anxiety inducing as I felt more and more that I did not really have a place, a purpose, or a defined role.

Over the last 6 months, I have been reflecting on what it means for me and others in a similar position as a relatively junior member of staff, and the unique tasks and asks we’ve had which we may unlikely have the experience, the training or the foundation of knowledge to prepare us for. But then, there’s the catch-22, because the fact that we’re not particularly tied to a job role and don’t have a particular job to do that no one else can do, we can be more flexible about supporting other teams and projects. COVID has enabled me and so many others to become sort of a ‘jack of all trades’ but of course the other half of that phrase is ‘master of none’. I am so grateful and genuinely excited about the new experiences that have been presented to me, but it has been difficult to feel settled or like I fully know what I’m doing. And I’m certain that this isn’t just the case for more junior members of staff, COVID has meant that everyone has felt unsettled and lost at some point.

Another consideration is that as an Assistant Psychologist who intends on applying for clinical training later this year, everything that I do in my job is for the purpose of giving me the relevant experience and skills and knowledge and confidence to be an attractive candidate. Although there is some safety in the knowledge that all of the other hopeful assistants in the country are likely feeling the same way, there is still that feeling of dread that we don’t have a safety net. Developing my psychological skills hasn’t been a focus over the last period, so then what do I talk about in my application? What does this mean for my future?

It’s hard not to think about the 5,500 final year medical students who had to graduate early to join the workforce, as the need to manage COVID was, and still is, so high. I cannot begin to imagine what the impact of suddenly transitioning from student to doctor would be, particularly on their confidence and feelings of preparation, and what a hit their mental health and wellbeing could have taken.

During these times, things like inductions, training, support, and supervision have understandably taken a backseat because there are more pressing issues, however the impact of this is that the more junior workforce lack the confidence in themselves and the feeling of ability to do the tasks we are being asked to. For me, and in particular after taking the wellbeing quiz on Together in Mind, my profile came out as ‘More Frantic’ which made complete sense. The panic of feeling displaced, not particularly useful but also feeling as though I’m giving 110% to multiple teams all day every day took its toll.

But it is not all doom and gloom. The opportunities have been amazing and truly insightful, and although it might have taken a few months, the relationships that I’ve been able to build with such a huge range of people from different teams, divisions, disciplines and organisations feel positive and strong. I do not think that I’m particularly qualified to advise anyone who may be feeling this way at all, but to keep to the trends of the last 6 months I’m going to do it anyway: always ask for feedback. Talk to your line manager when it feels like too much. Say no if it’s not manageable. Resist the urge to want to prove yourself at every opportunity – it’s exhausting. Take breaks! Take that FULL lunch break away from your screen.

The point of being a junior member of staff if that eventually we hope to be senior members of staff. It’s hard to forget our goals when everything is so unsettled but the one main take away I’ve learnt is to use every experience to my advantage and learn, learn, learn. And to have frequent pet breaks. And to never run out of milk for tea. And have a really well-stocked snack cupboard.

Good luck to everyone and well done for coping as well as you have. Thank you for listening.

Neelam Solanki is an Assistant Psychologist working within the National i-THRIVE Programme Team at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, and has also been working on Together in Mind. Neelam shares her experiences of being a relatively junior member of staff through periods of great change and uncertainty, and its impact on her wellbeing and future.