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The challenges of working within and across organisations

Lydia Hartland-Rowe reflects on our Centenary Event, Working and Wellbeing: Organisations and Systems. If you missed the event, watch a recording here or go to our YouTube channel.

I was delighted to take part in the latest in a series of Centenary Events at the Tavistock and Portman, ‘Working and Wellbeing: Organisations and Systems’. 

A few of us were speaking from different perspectives on the thorny but important issue of how our organisations and systems impact on our sense of emotional wellbeing and mental health, and we were joined in a rich and lively audience discussion that could have taken us off into so many interesting and important directions. Working within and across organisations takes courage – how do we face the gaps, notice the pain and vulnerability of others and keep working together on our organisational task?

An enormous amount was covered over the course of the evening. Jennie McShannon gave us such an incredibly clear and accessible way of understanding the kinds of processes that go on in organisations, with examples that came vividly to life, and Angela Bagum brought together the ways we can use personal experience to understand mental health in the workplace, alongside an appeal to think collectively and globally about the issues. I talked about my experience of working across a system to create a network of support for people feeling the impacts of Covid-19, but the evening really got going when we were joined by our three panel members.

Christine McKenzie spoke so powerfully and directly about the need for shared conversations about the impacts we have on each others’ states of mind and health, particularly in relation to race and the structural systems of racism that persevere into working relationships unless we talk to each other. Chris Caldwell and Elisa Reyes Simpson brought alive the complexity of working to create frameworks for helping organisations to try to see, listen to, understand, and respond to the emotional impacts of the workplace – from the framework of a half-hour daily check in with Chief Nurses during the severe waves of the pandemic, to the creation of a complex framework aimed at providing a model for organisations to get curious about how people are, and how they can help to keep us well.

Frameworks that work?

I was personally left with a few things that I wanted to think more about. One was frameworks, and when and how they help, and when and why they don’t. One thing we all agreed on was that, at team and system level, the workplace is about relationships, and so what makes a framework or model for organisational life work well on behalf of people’s mental health is going to be the quality of the relationships that build it, provide it, and make use of it. 

In our work within Tavistock Consulting, we’ve seen more than one client with some really impressive organisational frameworks and models aimed at supporting mental health and wellbeing that were just not being valued by wider staff groups because they were too far from the individual, lived experience of working relationships. If a framework is too rigid, or too idealised, it can be really hard for someone whose experience doesn’t quite fit within it to feel their voice is going to be heard. A very impressive set of standards and processes about how to support staff wellbeing might not mean as much as it could if what hasn’t been heard by leadership is how anxious people might feel about being seen not to cope. It seems to me that one of the biggest risks in how we approach organisations and psychological health is when we forget that individual doubt, suffering and mental distress still generates, for most of us, a sense of shame and a loss of self-worth.

So any framework really needs to include the hard work of building working relationships that promote trust – and this can be really hard in environments where that may feel very difficult, whether because of the impact of pressure on the business, organisational change or longer-standing issues of inequity in relation to race, gender, age or disability.

Leadership – and followership!

I was also left thinking about how hard it is in the current climate especially to be a leader, and to be a manager. So many of the comments in the chat pointed to the importance of managers who can make space to know about how the people they manage are feeling – with the emphasis perhaps on this not happening! But I wonder if we need to try and find some of the curiosity that was highlighted by some of the other speakers and be interested in what might be getting in the way for anyone in a workplace who is struggling to empathise, or to connect with peoples’ vulnerability in their working relationships. I wonder if there is a way that we can get into the habit of sharing each others’ pressures and preoccupations more – even just a little bit more. So that the frustration at a manager who doesn’t seem open to hearing about the emotional pressure of staff might also be tempered by a moment’s thought about what the emotional pressures might be for them, in their role?

Almost certainly, none of us can do this all the time, and most of us are lucky if we manage it even a little bit. But what we know about groups, and teams and systems, is that a small shift in just one part of a system can potentially have an impact that goes much further. So if our followership, as well as our leadership, can make even a small difference to the wellbeing experience of just one other person in our workplace, it’s a place to start

Lydia Hartland-Rowe is a trained Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist, and has been combining expertise in organisational work, specialist mental health practice, and teaching and training in different sectors for over 20 years. Lydia is the Workforce Wellbeing Lead at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, and organisational consultant for Tavistock Consulting, the Trust’s commercial offer for organisational mental health.

Working alongside her colleague Angela Bagum, she took a leading role in the development of Working Towards Wellbeing – a suite of online mini-courses, delivered through the Tavistock and Portman Digital Academy.

Working towards wellbeing

Working towards wellbeing

Drawing on the key principles of systems-psychodynamic thinking, our Working Towards Wellbeing online course bundle has been developed in the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, under the expert guidance of our organisational consultants to nurture mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Combining stimulating, theoretical ideas with a clear and practical focus, each five-hour mini-course focuses on the most pressing challenges and development needs facing organisations today. 

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