I work in a place where people die. I sometimes talk to them (and their loved ones) shortly before they pass away, or occasionally I might be a guest at their wedding; I might take photos of them with their children, or as they meet their precious pet for the last time.
I work in a hospice.
But far from it being a strain both mentally and physically, it’s actually the most inspiring place I have ever worked in a 35 year career spanning newspaper journalism and corporate communications. It has put me into situations I could never have imagined, it has made me think about my own life and allowed me to meet some memorable people who have (very occasionally) made me cry.
Of course I didn’t know what to expect when I started working at Trinity Hospice, Blackpool, seven years ago. I did wonder if it would be emotionally draining. A couple of friends said the job would give me sleepless nights and my teenage sons said it didn’t exactly sound like a laugh a minute.
They were wrong. There are tough times, but the community here is one of outstanding mutual support and care, and there’s an emphasis on personal and group resilience that gets us all through the occasional ‘bad day’ and makes the role truly fulfilling.
I honestly believe that as a result of being here, my own emotional wellbeing is stronger than it has ever been. Yes, it’s undoubtedly an advantage being a comms person surrounded by professional care givers. The people right on the front line – the clinical and medical teams, the counsellors and support staff – create the most fantastic comfort blanket which other charities outside the care sector will not have. But there’s another dimension that I’m convinced is within reach of everyone.
Early morning pilates or yoga for a small sign-up fee; regular staff ‘wellbeing days’ where treatments such as reiki, massage and crystal therapy are provided by volunteers for free – all you have to do is book a slot and turn up. There are relaxation groups for staff and, most importantly, a focus on the personal side of resilience in encouraging each of us to be mindful; to regularly take a few minutes to reflect, relax, and focus positively on the here and now, rather than worry about the yet-to-be.
Our complementary therapist describes it in simple terms: ‘Mindfulness requires no special location or equipment. Just sit at your desk and watch the raindrops run down the window, or go for a lunchtime walk and kick the autumn leaves. Think about you, about your posture and breathing. Use nature as a point of focus, a ten minute reminder that whatever else is happening, there’s a place of calm and contentment within each of us that is untouched by emails, meetings and phone calls…’
Wellbeing at work can only thrive in an environment where we each take responsibility for those around us – being a good listener, giving advice if someone asks for it. We use Sage & Thyme training – an evidence-based communication skills model based around providing person-centred support to those with emotional concerns – for support staff as well as clinicians, and it shows us how to notice someone’s distress, hear concerns and respond helpfully.
I am pretty resilient and have always bounced – you had to if you worked in a 1980s newsroom – but bouncing back time and again can be hard, and the stress that today’s communicators experience is different from that I grew up with. The essential need for speed, reacting to events in a minute rather than in a day, and the fear of being left behind as opinions race through social media is utterly exhausting.
Be honest. Do you check your emails in the night? Do you really take a break from work when you are on leave? Mobile phones and laptops mean that for many comms people there is no down time and that can be damaging, especially when a personal setback comes along; a bereavement, a broken friendship or a missed job opportunity.
Be mindful. Talk to your colleagues. Start a relaxation group or a lunchtime meditation session. Develop your listening skills and never be too busy to hear the concerns of others.
Working at a hospice reminds me to make the most of every minute and not put off the things that really matter. It reminds me that I’m pretty lucky, and it has stopped me taking things for granted. It would be a tough decision to leave but if I did, would the things I’ve experienced here around wellbeing translate to other settings? Yes, I think many of them would, and I would try to take them with me.
This case study is part of CharityComms’ Wellbeing guide for comms professionals.