As we head towards the end of 2020 it feels like many colleagues and clients are running out of steam. I understand entirely. A nasty bout of Covid-19 in November knocked me off my feet, even resulting in a (thankfully short-lived) trip to A&E. I had lots of time to reflect during my enforced convalescence, and the theme of resilience kept recurring.
It’s been the year of resilience, I think. Former NHS colleagues and people across the sector have had to dig deeper than ever before. Many businesses have had to figure out new ways to make it through the year. People who were furloughed needed to find a new purpose for weeks or months spent at home without the focus work normally provides.
But what does resilience really mean?
During my 30 years in the NHS I hardly took a day off until I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. I prided myself on turning in. I thought I was being resilient. In hindsight, what I was doing was setting an awful example for colleagues in my role as a chief executive, director or senior leader. I was signalling that my health was less important than my work. It’s ironic that I worked in the health service.
The definition of resilience is the ability to quickly spring back from difficulties. That’s different to not admitting that we’re having difficulties. In a year when the NHS and its amazing workforce have been tested to breaking point, that’s a critical distinction.
I hope that Covid-19 has shown NHS trusts that they have to put their staff first. People who work for the NHS usually do so because they want to care for patients, so making a shift to prioritising themselves first is hard. But great patient care is given by people who themselves are well.
The challenge for the NHS in 2021 is to ensure the wellbeing of NHS staff is prioritised.
A good first step is to develop a culture of psychological safety. A place where it’s okay to not be okay. Where people feel confident to ask for what they need and not under pressure to show up when they aren’t really up to it. (And that’s not only about the risks of spreading infectious diseases.)
Psychological safety creates the opposite of the cult of presenteeism, where being seen to be at work is more valuable than what people actually deliver.
I benefitted from being an associate with thevaluecircle when I was diagnosed with Covid-19 because I knew it would be okay to be off ill. Partly that’s a result of the stage of my career – I’m no longer trying to impress anyone. But I also knew I didn’t have to worry about having to do my work from my sick bed.
I accept I’m in a privileged position with work that will wait a few days or that can be picked up by colleagues. But I never once worried that I wouldn’t be supported. In hindsight, I must have worried about that during my NHS career.
As leaders we must challenge ourselves and assess whether our behaviour enables people to speak out, or silently signals they mustn’t. How many times have you sympathised and empathised with someone, while secretly wishing they would get a grip? And how many times have you spoken harshly to yourself – as I did for much of my career – in a way you wouldn’t dream of speaking to a friend?
Be authentic is a phrase that’s over-used, but the essence is right. You need to be wholly yourself at work, not put on a front or behave the way you think you should. We are never okay all of the time; we need to stop pretending that we are.
So if I was to suggest a New Year’s Resolution it would be to prioritise self-care and to model to others that’s what you’re doing. If 2020 has been the year of resilience, I’m hoping 2021 will be the year of genuine compassion. We’ll all be better for it.
Image by Moira Metcalfe for thevaluecircle.