The welfare of frontline staff: Pouring from an empty cup?

I have been reflecting a lot. Thinking hard about the welfare of those I help and importantly, the staff whom I employ to help them.

Especially since the start of 2021 I feel as though I am standing in the eye of the storm wondering, and in many ways waiting for the impact of all that we’ve faced, to hit us.

I am the CEO of a mental health service that sits in the third sector. We provide support to those who do, or are at risk of self harm and suicide via a range of services and we’ve been doing what we do for enough time to know our sector well.

With that comes both privilege and price.

Often over subscribed and under resourced we know the needs that we’re here to help with; we observe presentations, we learn and grow and evolve.

Being a suicide-facing service brings an implication for staff welfare far beyond that of many services. It’s an ethical minefield to consider that by recruiting someone to work in my service, I am essentially exposing them to experiences that could, if not managed well, increase their own risk profile.

If you are exposed to suicide, you are more likely to consider this yourself, globally speaking. My responsibility to my staff is to recruit for resilience, for compassion and skill by all mean, but to focus on developing skills for survival in this field.

It is imperative that the workload is fluid and well-balanced with maximised opportunities for team contact, supervision, debrief and support so that the balance of stress and replenishment is as managed as it can be.

In 2020 a global pandemic hit.

Like services around us we made our own way, month by month, change after change, modification after modification, review after review.

We performed against our funding, whilst funding opportunities shrunk. We performed against our contracts, in spite of the demand increasing 200%; where not only did more people need us, but people needed more. We kept on going whilst we watched our colleagues close their doors and worse, their services.

We worked from home. Then the office. Then home again. We separated ourselves from our colleagues to keep each other safe, some of whom we’ve now not seen for almost a year.

It’s now January. And we’re tired.

We do not feel refreshed in spite of the mandatory two week closure we imposed to ensure the teams had time and space to recover. In fact we few burned out; unable to manage competing demands, exhausted and at best glum, at worst hopeless.

Overwhelmed by the state of the world and denied access to our usually punctuated work life balance we work where we eat and we eat where we sleep, if we sleep – our nights disturbed by worries and concerns, deadlines that spill into our dreams.

All this in spite of a very successful year.

So, as I crawl towards the end of January I am thinking focusedly about my team and myself. As we too carry the burden of the world around us and face the same separation from normality as those we help; we too experience the distance felt from a healthy way of life just as those we serve we are finding things harder. We are bored. Tired. We are worried about our families, concerned for our kids uncertain about our future.

Times are unprecedented and rarely are the providers of a service so monumentally experiencing the same world experiences as their clients, and certainly rarely at the same time.

So as we approach this very new 2021 we will be making changes and I encourage others to do the same. Our capacity to give and help, to replenish ourselves and stay well relies upon a system of being- where work alone is but a part. We experience stress, but our relationships, our hobbies, our lifestyle, the punctuation between work and social, educational and exercise maintains us.

That old adage that you cannot pour from an empty cup has never been more true and now is the time to consider how we continue to pour.

To use the stress bucket analogy, with an increasing number of challenges competing for our emotional, cognitive and physical capacity we need to find new and innovative ways of working in order that we create either opportunity to recover and revive, or we reduce the demands placed upon that system – work demands might need to be lessened if we are to appropriately respond to the continued state of play. I’m times of health we may be able to deliver 15-20 sessions a week, but now our capacity might be significantly reduced.

Over the coming weeks we will accommodate for that, without shame or apology. To our commissioners I say this; I do not strive to purposefully under perform on my contracts, but that said, our activity levels, our performance, our outcomes were predicted on what we knew of the world and our work. That’s now changed. To sustain the workforce I need to pull them back from overwork. I need to listen to them when they tell me they can do less on their current resources; that they aren’t replenishing from their breaks because the monotony of being coupled with the reduced contact with those we love in a time of concern and fear is exhausting. I will not push them to perform, or ask of them what they do not have to give because I want them to still be in work, with me, when we come out of the other side of this to help me to stem the tide of mental health needs outside of our walls. For now I’m going to listen to the voices within our walls, their struggles and trials, their needs and their hopes as I try to find a new path in this unchartered territory towards sustained welfare of my crew.

I hope that I’m capturing this in words it speaks to the experiences of others and encourages other leaders and managers to follow suit; we recognise the huge need for our help now more than ever but know that in order to look after others we must first look after ourselves. We will do less in order that we’re still here and in tact, to do more.

If we fail to reach our milestones and measurables I urge the world to more meaningfully recognise and celebrate the welfare sustenance of the workforce if we are, as I would hope, that when we are no longer in the eye, we are able to ride out the storm with both integrity and Hope.

Wish us well.

Caroline Harroe 

CEO Harmless & The Tomorrow Project