When TS Eliot wrote that “April is the cruellest month…” he ruled himself out of the running for patron poet of the NHS. April’s fine; the flu season is over, Norovirus is winding down and A&E attendances / acute admissions numbers are actually beginning to resemble Chief Exec planning assumptions. No, February and March are I think the trough of the cycle in the NHS year. This is when it can seem like winter’s been going on forever and people can feel just a little drained of optimism and bounce. Everyone will be different in how they react to this drop in bounciness of course; I definitely become more irritable and see a marked change in my threshold for when swearing is the appropriate response.
To be frank, I’ve been feeling a bit lower than the seasonal norm recently. This has nothing to do with work but all to do with the twists and turns of modern family life. My lovely old step dad died in February after a steep dementia driven decline. He’d spent his last couple of months in a care home in Swansea and whilst staff there were great, each visit re-emphasised the unfairness of a good life ending with multiple indignities. He was a man who’d fought (and survived blast injuries) in Burma, had a career and great family life and watching his last few weeks through the sort of time lapse lens of weekend visits was hard.
When I got the message that he’d died, I managed to take a few days off to help my mother with the various arrangements. She somewhat disrupted this plan by falling and breaking her femur on the first morning after I’d arrived. Fair play to the Welsh Ambulance Service and Morriston Hospital in Swansea, the transport, assessment, admission and timeliness of operation were all as you would wish it to be but I began to reflect, as I was supporting my mother through this whilst trying to arrange death certificate, funeral and various pension type things, that I was getting a touch stressed.
A day or two later when I was trying to return to Scotland, I was marooned for hours by Storm Doris in a Crewe station where the only remaining foodstuffs seemed to be Yorkie bars. By this point in the week I could imagine no circumstances in which swearing was not the appropriate response.
All of this was a bit sudden and unfortunately coincidental, but I think it’s important to recognise just how many of our 4,500 staff are going through this same juggling of work and family issues and the impact it can have on their resilience, particularly at the end of a long NHS winter. Our workforce is ageing along with the wider population and we now have substantial numbers of people who’ll be routinely dealing with issues of care and support for relatives whilst continuing to work in a health and care system that’s never been busier.
We desperately need our people to retain their resilience and their creativity both to continue delivering safe, person centred care and because of the need to reinvent our services to meet the extreme financial and recruitment challenges we’re now experiencing. Our population is relying on us and we simply can’t let them down so we have to find ways to get through the times when optimism feels hardest.
So this is my personal shortlist of techniques that seem to work for me in attempts to retain some bounciness in the face of difficult odds. It was compiled in a Yorkie fuelled sugar rush in beautiful Crewe so might lack the academic rigour of other approaches. As a result, I would guess its evidence base is only somewhere between homeopathy and wearing your lucky pants on rugby international days.
1. Avoid political debates or press coverage of the NHS...
You know this makes sense. There are decent, passionate politicians and superb investigative journalists but life’s too short to wade through the nonsense to get to them. This winter I’ve heard that the problems in the NHS are down to managers (naturally), the patients using services incorrectly (!), GPs (what? I mean, really?) and health tourism (I can’t comment politely on this innumerate gibberish because my swearing threshold has been breached).
If you stumble inadvertently onto some Question Time debate on the NHS, don’t despair. Reflect instead on this recent IPSOS Mori poll on the public’s confidence in the truthfulness of various professions.
Solid, mid – table respectability for NHS Managers there.
Our Public Health colleagues are right on this one. It doesn’t seem much to matter whether it’s walking, cycling, or hitting a ball of some sort, I am a calmer, nicer bloke after exercise than before it.
Tricky one this, as I’ve already highlighted the stresses that come with family life. But it’s also brilliant, life-enhancing stuff and if I start skimping on my input to making it all work as well as life in a household with a teenage child can ever work, I feel lousy.
4.A bit of escapism…
Now and then I need my mind occupied by something so engrossing that it just about drives every worry out to the edges. Books or films work reasonably well here, but for me this is best achieved by immersing myself in sport watching (ideally rugby or cricket). I think we can all agree that this has been an awful year for rugby with results so freakish that I wouldn’t be surprised if certain people had burned their lucky pants. But there’s always an Ospreys game coming up, or the Lions to look forward to, or the prospect that this summer will finally see Glamorgan triumphant. And to top it all, there are impassioned arguments with your mates over essentially pointless things. Unbeatable.
It’s a short list of feel-better approaches and I’d welcome suggested additions of what works well for you. Using these was also only partly successful recently so apologies to anyone who’s experienced a slightly more distracted or grumpier me. April’s almost here and things are definitely on the up again.
Jeff Ace is the Chief Executive Officer at NHS Dumfries and Galloway