If we don’t share our failure, is that a success?

We are creating a wellbeing resource to help Occupational Therapists in their first year of practice. It’s a two-stage process: find out where our help is needed, then offer some support. So how do we do that?

We begin by asking questions,

               Hi, how’s it going?

               How was it for you?

We’re paraphrasing, obviously, but you get the idea. Then slowly, gradually, the questions grow teeth.

               What felt wrong?

               What could be better?

               What didn’t work for you?

We have to ask these questions, or we won’t know the gaps, where people need support. If our work is sanitised and corporate, it won’t benefit anyone. But being honest raises another, deeper question, how we do we share our frustrations and failures, without fear of professional consequence?

It’s a tough ask, for a new recruit, to share of their struggles, to reveal their own fragile failures to a world that can feel all powerful, when you small in comparison. As one rookie told us, he knows the theory but there’s a vast chasm between theory and reality,

“We all studied wellbeing! We all stared at a large projection of the stress bucket, sought support networks, peers, platforms, it’s not like we haven’t got the knowledge! What stops us reaching in and doing what we need, in terms of wellbeing, is the fact that we must always hold your tongue for fear the eyes and ears of our superiors are upon is. It is a very small fishpond where we swim”.

We replied that every voice in our project was anonymous and while that partially reassured him, his frustration was evident.

“Year One is a place where your worth feels very much on the table”.

Which brings us back to the central question, “What gets in the way? Of well-being?” How do we speak our truth as we experience it, so the voices can be heard, shared and hopefully learnt from? Supportive of the wider community too?

We start by asking how he feels.

“Tongue tied. Head down. Earning my stripes and then, and only then, is it safe to voice my wobbles. It’s heavy sometimes. As a student you were encouraged to moan, protected and nurtured by your University. But as a Year One OT, it’s a completely different ball game. You can write wellbeing into guidelines all you like, long troves about using reflections and speaking up, but truth be told, there often always pebble on your tongue”.

While that sounds disheartening, it gave us strength as this is exactly what this project seeks to address – finding new ways to help fledgling Occupational therapists like this young man, who need our support. And he is not alone. His words serve to help us figure out, what really does get in the way. What sits in this gap between knowledge and action? Where wellbeing should flourish?

“All my mates shout loudly in threads that they know won’t be judged, but they wouldn’t dream of sharing with a wider audience. Within our own private space, we engage, reply and offer gems, but when we do communicate with the outside world, our voices become smoother, more considered. The ‘risky’ parts ironed out now, edited… fit for practice!”

So, is that it? Is the only true reflective journal a chat in Costa Coffee? A moan with your mates in the pub? How do we, starting where we are, bring honesty into the fold, without fear of consequence? That is what this project is all about and the wonderful thing is, the young man before us agrees.

“I still think my fears are worth voicing. From speaking to colleagues across the NHS, the fact that the raw end of wellbeing is never discussed is widespread across our profession. What is great about the ethos of this project in particular, is that it aims to find creative ways that allow people to be totally, wholeheartedly and unashamedly honest! From that base, one hell of a resource could come”. 

Let’s hope so and with voices like this, we can indeed break new ground. For a specialism populated by people who practice wellbeing, our own wellbeing needs nurturing, especially in those who are just starting out.

“As Year One practitioners, we are the entry level. The “do as your told” level. The “don’t shout too loudly ‘cause you ain’t earnt your stripes (yet)” level”.

Could that call-to-action be stated any more clearly? I doubt it. It’s a wake-up-call.

“In order for this resource to succeed, we need more than just academic words covering the same old toolkit ideas that we learnt on training. It needs to touch on the notion that tongues feel tied and personal wellbeing often comes second to earning our stripes”

But there is hope. To the credit of the Elizabeth Casson Trust who are supporting this project, this is not some top-down initiative doling out the same old advice. The vast majority of the team who are creating this resource are in their first year of work. There is no benefit of hindsight or softening of the memory, this team ‘live’ the raw experience, with all content created on the hoof. Given the additional (phenomenal) pressures of a worldwide pandemic, they have no time for whimsy or waffle. We are attacking this issue head on.

It is not our voice that we wish to hear, it’s yours and the more rough edges the better. Sure, all voices are anonymous but that doesn’t dilute their strength.

Our profession is a fine one, full of passionate people who give their all to help their fellow human. It is natural that such passion spills out in the form of emotions but to dampen it would be a crime. Of course, the face we present to the public must be reassuringly confident and professional, but we must also accept that our own wellbeing is just as important as the patients we serve – and some of that ain’t pretty.

We shall end this blog with the words of the charming young man who spoke to us with grace and wisdom.

“A clever, subtle, funny ‘giggle at it all’ way of expressing our frustration would be so powerful. It would be the elephant that sits in any room where wellbeing is not respected”.

We’ll do our best.

Stay tuned….

By Jo Hunt and Rob Young

This project is funded by the Elizabeth Casson Trust. If you’d like to learn more about the project you can do so via this link and the team behind it here

If you’re in your 1st year of practice as an occupational therapist become part of the year 1 community by joining in via:

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