This week I had the privilege of listening to Prof Warren Larkin, advisor to the Department of Health on Adverse Childhood Experiences. This is something I’ve written about on this blog before and Warren has made me more determined than ever to keep talking about this profoundly important issue. This blog draws on his wisdom and learning.
I believe that Adverse Childhood Experiences are our most important Public Health issue. So I want to be really clear about what they are, how and why they affect us so deeply, where we can find help if we’ve been affected by them and how together we can change the future, by preventing them.
What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
• Physical abuse
• Sexual Abuse
• Emotional Abuse
• Living with someone who abused drugs
• Living with someone who abused alcohol
• Exposure to domestic violence
• Living with someone who was incarcerated
• Living with someone with serious mental illness
• Parental loss through divorce, death or abandonment
How Common Are They?
The answer is – far too common. There have been some really wide ranging studies across the UK and USA into the numbers of us who have experienced ACEs, and it’s not just in our “most deprived communities” but in predominantly white, middle class areas where we see the stark statistics. Depending on the study you read, between 50 and 65% have experienced at least one ACE. And shockingly 1 in 10 of us have experienced more than 4.
How and Why Do They Effect Us?
Firstly, they affect us by quantity. The more ACEs we experience, the worse our physical, mental and social health and wellbeing is. If you have experienced one ACE, you have an 86% chance of being subject to several. If you experience more than 4, your health and wellbeing is significantly affected. If you experience more than 6 then you have a 46 times higher chance of becoming an IV drug abuser, a 35 times higher chance of committing suicide and an overall 20 year decrease in life expectancy.
Secondly, the toxic stress levels significantly change the way in which our brains grow and function. This has a profound impact on our day to day functioning. ACEs are a massive cause of absenteeism from work, high cost to the health and social care system and highly predictive of time behind bars. That is why so many of us have complex relationships with things like food. Losing weight, for example, is not as straight forward as eating less, exercising more or ending up with a gastric band. Did you know that suicide rates are massively increased after bariatric surgery? By removing the ability to eat, the very thing that takes away or comforts the pain, we expose the underlying issue, but provide no healing into that void.
Thirdly, our bodies literally keep the score of the negative experiences. So, we become more likely to develop chronic pain, inflammatory conditions, heart disease, cancer and mental health issues.
Fourthly, the toxic stress actually alters the way our DNA works and therefore changes the genetic information that we pass onto future generations. As an example, domestic violence in pregnancy is predictive of child developmental issues and offspring of the survivors of the holocaust or genocide are far more likely to develop chronic anxiety. This highlights just how important our family history really is.
Fifthly, there are proven things we can do a) to help our brains learn how to cope in the midst of really difficult circumstances (resilience) and b) therapeutic interventions that can genuinely heal us.
Where Can We Find Help?
Here’s the thing – this is where the rubber hits the road.
Many of us, who have experienced difficult things in childhood/adolescence never talk about them. Sometimes that’s because we can’t remember the experiences – they happen to us before our memories fully form. But perhaps more frequently we bury them because we don’t want to talk about the deeply painful memories, we don’t know how to or we’re worried about what might happen to us, or the people who caused us the pain if we do. And how do you start a conversation like that anyway? What? Are you going to just blurt it out to someone? And what on earth will you do if you just start crying in the middle of a restaurant when you talk to your girlfriend/boyfriend about what happened to you? And what about all those complicated associated feelings of shame, guilt, fear, thoughts of rejection? So…..we keep the lid on….even though it’s to our own detriment because we don’t know how to bring it into the open.
And here in lies the starting place. It’s vital that we learn this in the world of health and social care, but actually we all need to hear this incredible truth. Various studies have shown that it takes 9-16 years for people to be able to talk about trauma/abuse they experienced, but most never do. Fraser and Read found that in their patients struggling with mental health issues, only 8% of them volunteered that they had experienced ACEs. However, when they were actually asked about this, 82% then talked about ACEs they had experienced. So? So, we find it almost impossible to talk about, but when someone asks us about what we have lived through, it takes the lid off the box, peels the sticky plaster off the deep wound and allows us to begin talking about our pain. And here’s something really remarkable……Felitti and Andra found in a study of 140000 people that simply by routinely asking all patients about ACEs, they saw a 35% decrease in visits to the GP and an 11% reduction in use of the Emergency Department!
What does that mean? It means that giving someone the chance to talk about their journey, what they have been through, breaking the cycle of shame, fear and rejection is, in and of itself, deeply healing! Knowing that you’re not a freak, knowing that it wasn’t your fault, knowing that it doesn’t mean that you yourself will become an abuser/alcoholic/poor parent and many more realisations can make a significant difference to a person’s wellbeing. Maybe it doesn’t have to wait for a GP’s surgery or a counsellor’s chair. Maybe, just maybe if we all care enough to ask each other deeper and more caring questions we can help to heal each other. I know this is true of my own journey and that of many of my friends.
But let’s not be naive. For some of us, the experiences we have had are so horrific that we are stuck in a moment and we can’t get out of it. And this is where good therapy really comes in. I wonder if we invested more in therapy and less in drugs to numb our pain, how much more healed we might be – perhaps more expensive in the short term, but overall the cost is far less, both for the individual and society as a whole. There is help available and it can take many forms. EMDR, Trauma Focussed-CBT, Bereavement Counselling and even things like working through a forgiveness process. Unfortunately, many of the waiting lists are very long, and private options are way too expensive for most people to afford.
So, Can We Change The Future?
You know that I believe together we can! But it’s not going to be easy, especially not in the context of our floundering social services, restrictive school curriculums, reduction in numbers of health visitors and school nurses, eye watering cuts to public health budgets and significantly stretched CAMHS and Adult Mental Health Teams. And I think we have to very real and honest about that, because if this is such a massive issue in our society (and the data and evidence is astounding) then we need, as Warren Larkin so eloquently argues, genuine commitment from leaders and organisations to shift towards a culture of learning and collaboration to bring about change.
Here are some things we need to do together:
1) Own up to what a massive issue this is.
2) We need to learn how to ask our friends better questions and care enough to listen to each other’s experiences and journeys because it is really hard to know how to start talking about ACEs, but is more possible when someone bothers to ask!
3) We need to recognise that by bottling things up, we do further harm to ourselves. Perhaps some of our complex addictive patterns of behaviour, our mental health issues, our physical pain and symptoms might well be linked to the ACEs we have experienced. So maybe we don’t need a life on painkillers, cigarettes or with a complex addictive behaviour patterns. Maybe we can find a way to deeper healing.
4) In health and social care, we need to adopt REACh (routine enquiry about adversity in childhood) – we need to change the way we take histories from patients and ask better questions. Remember that even by asking, it doesn’t open up scary and messy consultations that we don’t have time for, actually it opens up a therapeutic space which can massively alter how a person goes on to use the health service in the future.
5) We need to ensure schools are more vigilant to thinking that ‘naughty’ or ‘difficult’ children are actually highly likely to be in a state of hyper vigilance due to stressful things they are experiencing at home. Expecting them to ‘focus, behave and get on with it’, is not only unrealistic, it’s actually unkind. Simply recognising that kids might be having a really hard time, giving them space to talk about it with someone skilled, teaching them some resilience and finding a way to work with their parents/carers via the school nurse/social worker could make a lifetime of difference. It is far more important that our kids leave school knowing they are loved, with a real sense of self-esteem and belonging than with good SATS scores or GCSEs. The academic stuff can come later if necessary and we need to get far better at accepting this.
6) Parenting classes should not just be for the well-motivated or struggling. They should be for all of us – a routine part of antenatal care and alongside our children’s education and include help in dealing with previous ACEs, so they are not repeated for the next generation. Prevention is possible. And that means we need to learn to be a whole lot less judgemental and a great deal more open, honest, vulnerable and restorative with each other. One of my best memories of growing up, was going to a “foster home” for families that my mum used to work with and seeing parents being given the chance to learn how to love their kids, rather than have them taken off them. I know sometimes there is no choice, but helping people learn how to be family and to love and cherish their children is a really beautiful thing. When there has been generational abuse, it is is also of the upmost importance. I’m not saying that a child should never be removed, but we can hardly say that our care system is a rip-roaring success story.
7) We need to find a way of working with men and women in our prisons that enables them to find a way to healing and restoration, not retribution for what are often extremely complex stories.
8) We must learn from best practice around the world. For example, did you know that the vast majority of paediphiles begin offending at the age of 14?! Most of them do not go on to become prolific offenders, but the damage caused to the child they abuse is obviously significant. There is some amazing work now going on in Pennsylvania which has shown that you can actually prevent young men from becoming offenders in the first place. Simply by doing some better sex education, explaining to boys about testosterone, the urges they are having and who it is appropriate to perform sexual acts with; alongside creating a really safe space where they can come and talk about feelings they are having (a bit like AA – with no ridicule or judgement) – data shows that you can decrease the incidence of child sexual abuse. We have to learn from this kind of approach and find a better way of talking about difficult issues. Prevention IS possible!
9) We need to find a way to fund more psychological therapies and become much less reliant on drugs to numb the pain with the associated colossal bill paid to Big Pharma.
This is an area I am really passionate about. I am committing to keep this conversation alive, to ensure that we make a shift in our organisations towards a REACh approach, to find a deeper and more effective partnership with colleagues in education, social services and the police and to create space for more training and awareness for all our staff teams. I know how painful this conversation is, but I also know how utterly damaging it will be if we don’t change the future and prevent this from being a perpetual story through the generations. It is time for the hearts of the elders to turn to the children. Together we can reimagine the future. Together we can.
Here is a really helpful film:
So, the NHS is in another winter crisis.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a crisis as:
1 A time of intense difficulty or danger.
‘the current economic crisis’
Mass noun ‘the monarchy was in crisis’
1.1 A time when a difficult or important decision must be made. As modifier ‘the situation has reached crisis point’
1.2 The turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death.
Late Middle English (denoting the turning point of a disease): medical Latin, from Greek krisis ‘decision’, from krinein ‘decide’. The general sense ‘decisive point’ dates from the early 17th century.
A crisis is still a crisis, even if you see it coming. What is vital, as per Winston Churchill, is that a) we don’t waste this moment, but allow it to be a true tuning point and b) we don’t rush prematurely to actions to try and solve it, but ensure we look deep enough and far enough and then move towards collective steps for an altogether different kind of future.
I think there are some difficult and inconvenient truths that we need to face up to together. If we can do so, then we can move beyond sensational news cycles into co-producing something really exciting. Here are my incomplete thoughts about where we might want to think about starting:
- We need to get some perspective! One of the dangers of believing everything is bad is that we start to believe that the NHS is over. It is not over. It is 70 years old and it is transitioning, but it is not over! In the crisis we find ourselves in, let’s remember why the NHS is such an incredible thing and why its integration with social care is so vital. The Commonwealth Fund rates the NHS as the BEST healthcare system in the world, when it comes to equity, care and accessibility. However, our outcomes are significantly worse than that of our peers – there are some really important reasons for this, which we need to understand better. One of the major reasons is that our goals are so short term, that we cannot bring the long term changes to the health and wellbeing that we need – and this is caused by the way the NHS is run and the nature of our political cycles.
- We need to stop the boring, binary, partisan nonsense that is the political boxing match. It really is grow-up time when it comes to our arguments. There are some very different perspectives on why we’re in the crisis we’re in, what we might do about it and how we should go about those things. However, shouting our perspectives ever more loudly, whilst never encountering or deeply listening to the other perspectives in the room make it impossible for us to find an effective 3rd way forward together. We are well versed in the blue vs red options, but let us be honest, please. Neither the reds nor the blues are wholly right, and neither is wholly wrong! It is absolutely OK to hold different perspectives, but the manner of our arguments is astoundingly pathetic. Whilst all this shouting goes on, there are several perspectives that are not being heard, important voices, those of the patient, the carer, the poor etc. We need to stop our reactionary, swing left, swing right steering of this great ship (and that’s not to say a centrist approach is best either!) and learn to have some humility. Humility starts with listening and being willing to change. This is being so beautifully demonstrated by the Rose Castle Foundation and Cambridge University through their work with the vastly differing world views of Conservative Islam, Judaism and Christianity and offers us much learning and hope for the NHS and indeed any other of our deeply held belief systems. Anyone willing to have better conversations and find a way forward?
- The maths simply doesn’t add up. We need some honesty. A few weeks ago, the head of NHSI Jim Mackey, said that by April the NHS will be in around £2.2billion of debt. That is a very conservative estimate. It is a mathematical impossibility to close wards and scale down the size of our hospitals at a time when district nursing numbers have reduced by 28% over the last 5 years and social care is on its knees AND sort out the deficit! We know what the direction of travel needs to be, but the equation is simply unworkable, due to time and workforce pressures.We need to understand the true scale of the problems we’re facing and be real about how much money is going into health and social care spending compared to what is actually needed.
- The reason for this is that health and social care funding is becoming more costly and more complex. Our population is growing in size and people are living longer – this is great, on many levels (although we still need a much better conversation about death and why sometimes we keep people alive, when we could allow them to die well and peacefully). However, as we grow older, we develop more health conditions, and social needs, which require more costly treatments and packages of care, which we’re simply not accounting for, especially when we know the predictions of how our population will grow and age over the next 20 years.
- We therefore need to have a long term vision of how we want to build the most safe, excellent, effective, equitable, efficient, compassionate and kind health and social care system in the world whilst recognising in order to so, we will HAVE to make some upfront, BIG investments. It is simply impossible to have double austerity on health and social care and then believe we can do the transformational work necessary for the future change we need. Austerity has woken us up to the fact that there are some inefficient ways of working and some things we could definitely do more effectively in partnership. We’ve learnt that now. However, as a philosophy it is now defunct for where we need to go.
- This means, we have to put significantly more money into the system now. Once we have done some more work on the vision and plans for the future (the 5 year forward view is too short and although sets us up a good trajectory, is not ambitious enough), we need to ensure there is a sufficient injection of cash (not removal of it) to make this possible. So, we have some options available to us. A) We could increase tax for everyone – something that 67% of our population seem to be willing to pay. B) We could close tax loopholes and ensure that companies like Amazon and Google pay the tax that is owed. C) We could also increase our GDP % spend on health and social care – remember, currently, we have one of the lowest % spend of any of the other OECD nations. Perhaps a combination of all of these things is necessary.
- Creating long term health and social care solutions means that we have to put population and public health as the foundation of the system. We know that prevention is better than cure. We know that if we promote health and wellbeing, disease will be far from us. The disinvestment in these areas and the over reliance on a very stretched and struggling community-voluntary-faith sector is a recipe for disaster. There is huge work to be done in deeply listening to and working with our communities to improve the health and wellbeing of everyone, using the best research, evidence and data available to us through our public health bodies in order to make this shift.
- This means we need to continue to tackle the wider determinants of health and think radically about these things as being serious public health issues. This is how the city of Glasgow has gone about tackling knife crime and London has much to learn. We need to apply wisdom and learning to things like smoking, sugar, alcohol, pollution, drugs, road traffic accidents, domestic violence, suicide and adverse childhood experiences. We also need to develop a radically generous philosophy to the areas of job creation, housing, land rights and the care of the environment of which we are stewards not lords.
- We have to take greater responsibility and care of the health and wellbeing of ourselves and of those around us. It is not possible for us to have a national health and social care system that is sustainable if we think we can live exactly how we want whilst thinking someone else will simply mop up the mess or pay the tab. Our sugar, food and alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, driving, smoking and drug habits are all areas where we do have to take greater responsibility. NHS staff need to lead by example here. They are also areas where government give those lobbies far too much power and where we need better legislation to help bring about change. It is a both/and not an either/or approach.
- We need to create a much more shared-care approach with patients, co-partner with patients to enable them to understand the conditions they live with so that they are able to self-manage/self-care more effectively and create community support groups.
- We need to use digital solutions to full effect. We need to widen the access to patients having their own online records, the sharing of data across the system and getting savvy with better apps and technology for the benefit of patients and communities.
- We need to change our expectations of what we believe our ‘rights’ are in terms of health and social care. As an example, people phone up a GP surgery and want to see a GP. But there are MANY other allied health and social care professionals who may be better placed to sort out the problem. However, a recent survey in Gosport showed that of the people who phoned up wanting to see their GP, only 9% of them actually needed to see their GP and the rest would have been dealt with more effectively by someone else. We need to get used to the fact that we don’t have enough GPs available for everyone to be able to see one every time they would like to, but there are other professionals who are equally able to help. Another example is that everyone wants to safeguard their local hospital and we tend to have a fixed belief that being in hospital when we’re ill is the best place for us. Actually, especially when we’re older we can receive just as good care at home or in a nursing home and being admitted to hospital adds very little benefit. However, in order to have smaller and therefore more affordable hospitals, we really do have to ensure we have the necessary infrastructure and staffing around community nursing, social care and General Practice. Currently this is not the case and it takes time and investment to grow this workforce.
- We need ensure we are training and recruiting the right skill mix of people for the right jobs. This means we need to think at least 20 years ahead with the predictive statistics we have available to us and do some proper workforce planning. We’re are far too short sighted. This will take financial investment now, as stated above, but if we get it right, will leave us with a far more effective and efficient living system in the future.
- Our medical, nursing and therapeutic school curriculums therefore need to ensure they are training students for the kind of future we need. We need a complete redesign of some of the curriculums and we need to change the way training is done. As part of this, we need to ensure we are raising good human beings, not just good professionals, with values, culture and great communication skills built into all of the process.
- We have to redesign the contracts, as unfortunately without this, some of the behaviour changes simply will not happen. The current contracts across health and social care are the very antithesis of what is needed. This will take some bravery and leadership, but it is time to grasp this nettle. Without this, we will behave perversely because the incentives driving the system and the nature of competition laws are detrimental to the collaborative future we need.
- We can only do all of this together. This means our staring place in all of this is to own up to the fact that in all of the above, we simply don’t know. From the place of not knowing, we can ask great questions, bring our bits of expertise to the table and build a jigsaw. There is expertise in national and local government, but certainly not all the answers. There is expertise in the health and social care clinicians, practitioners and managers. There is expertise in our communities and with people who have lived experience of the various complex issues we face. It is only together that we can face the future. Let’s break out of our camps, our deeply entrenched belief systems and find a new way of dancing together. The future belongs to us all. Together we can.
Happy New Year!
We often start a New Year with resolutions, things which we would like to change for the better. so, I thought I’d start this year of blogging with a vlog about my perspective on the A-Z of what affects your Health and Wellbeing the most.
It’s longer than most of the videos on my new YouTube Channel (Dr Andy Knox), at nearly 15 minutes long, but it is pretty tricky to talk through 26 different aspects of health and wellbeing in under 3 minutes!
So…..he is a list of the things I talk about……and if you don’t want to watch the whole thing, then you can find the bits in the video that are of interest to you, in helping you think about some changes you might want to make or help you might want to access this year.
A is for Alcohol
A is for Adverse Childhood Experiences
B is for Blood Pressure (140/90 – the magic numbers)
C is for Cigarettes
D is for Don’t want to live anymore
E is for Exercise
F is for Fluids
F is for Food
G is for Glucose (Sugar)
H is for Housing
H is for Heating
I is for Irregular Pulse
J is for Joy
K is for Kindness to NHS Staff
L is for Loneliness
M is for Money (Debt)
N is for Narcotics (Drugs)
O is for Obesity/Overweight
P is for Pollution
Q is for Quarrelling
R is for Road Taffic Accidents
S is for Stress
T is for Temper (Anger)
U is for Underweight
V is for Violence (Domestic Violence)
W is for Worry
X is for Xenophobia
Y is for Your Ego
Z is for Zzzzzzzzzzz (Sleep Deprivation)
A few months ago, I wrote a couple of blogs exploring the social justice issue that is the vast difference between the health spend in the North, compared to the South.
This week a graph was produced by HM Treasury to show how overall spending has changed across England since 2012. Here is the evidence:
So, in the North, we already have the worst health outcomes in England with an underspend of around £800m per year, per head of population, compared to the South. Yet, over the last 5 years we have seen further disinvestment here at a time when we’re also being asked to make substantial savings! Why the Northern MPs do not seem to think this is worth making much noise about, I’m not quite sure. This is an economic issue, a political issue, a social justice issue and a humanitarian issue. As I take the conversation to our public about the difficult choices ahead of us, here in Morecambe Bay and Lancashire over the coming months, I wonder what the response to this information might be?
In the last blog, reflecting on the book “Legacy”, by James Kerr, I started to explore how the All Blacks have managed to create such an excellent culture; reflecting on what we can learn from it in the health and social care system (or indeed any environment).
Of the 15 principles outlined, I looked at the first 8 (the pack) and now I will look at the back 7.
9) Stay Focussed under Pressure – The eighth principle is to practice under pressure and learn to keep a cool head. This ninth one is about individuals and the team keeping their focus and attention on the task in front of them when the pressure comes. There are times when the stress is on. We are hard pressed from every side. The powers are breathing down our necks, the crisis is in front of us, we feel under resourced, over stretched and at the end of ourselves. Keeping our heads, and not losing them at such times, is the mark of a team who know how to manage themselves and take care of each other. This is really about learning to be mindful, to be present in the moment and to centre ourselves well. At times of real pressure, psychologists recommend three key things: 1) Slow your breathing down and focus on the breath flowing in and out of your body – this calms the mind and brings you into the present. 2) Find a repetitive action, like tapping your foot, scrunching your toes or clicking your fingers to help your body connect to the moment you are in. 3) Rehearse some mantras, which you can repeat back to yourself, over and over, to remind you of the basic things you need to do. That is what we use ABCDEF for in resuscitation – it’s why we need the automatic pilot. It also makes us far less likely to snap at team players and hurt relationships when the proverbial hits the fan.
10) Authenticity – the best leaders stay true to their deepest values, no matter what situation they find themselves in. Honesty = Integrity = Authenticity = Resilience = Performance. Be taken at your word. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Be true to who you are, no matter where you are. To be lovely at work and a terrible person to your spouse or family lacks integrity and authenticity. Good people make good leaders.
11) Sacrifice – now, I would offer a word of caution here. We work in environments in which sometimes we sacrifice our own wellbeing or our own marriages/families due to the pressures and expectations that we put ourselves under, because we are good hearted people who often have the need to be needed or the need to be heroes. However, there is definitely a balance, because without some sacrifice and having the kind of love, which as Thomas Jay Oord puts it, is “self-emptying and others empowering” we will lack something vital in our culture. Buckminster Fuller says we must wrestle with these questions: ‘What is my job on the planet? What needs doing, that I know something about, that probably won’t happen unless I take responsibility for it? What extra mile will make us extraordinary?’
12) Language – Sing your world into existence. I hosted a conversation in Morecambe recently, in which I shared that I often sing to places as I drive or walk through the streets (weird, I know!). But I asked everyone there, that if they were to sing a song to Morecambe, what that song would be. There was nobody without a song! Leaders are storytellers. All great organisations are born from a compelling story. Words and values really matter. Organisations need their own vocabulary, mottos, mantras and metaphors. The food of a leader is knowledge and communication. In Morecambe Bay, we are beginning to develop a language and a narrative around ‘The Bay Way.’ We want our vocabulary and our dialect to reflect the vision, values, culture and behaviours here.
13) Ritual – now, it might be pretty awkward if we all started to try and do the Haka at the start of our meetings! Not only would be awkward but it would make little cultural sense! Even for the All Blacks, the Haka has had to change. The team is no longer predominantly Maori, but a mixture of many cultures. They have had to go on a journey together of how to keeep and adapt a ritual that really means something and connects the team together. Ritual makes the intangible real. It can take many different forms, but it really is vital. It might be a daily team check in, but my sense is that it takes some bravery to establish and continue. In the West, we are so much more detached from our sense of corporate history and identity. Perhaps we feel embarrassed about it or no longer know what it means for us now. What might ritual look like in our work places and teams now? There is a Maori phrase which says: “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.” This is why I am so keen for our teams to experience things together, like the Art of Hosting. It is in the partaking, the encountering of the ‘other’, the immersion in the experience in which we find ourselves changed.
14) Whakapapa – this is the principle of being a good ancestor. What are you sowing into those around you. The All Blacks make it really clear that becoming an All Black is a privilege not to be taken lightly. When you receive the jersey, it comes with a weight of history and a responsibility that you take it to the next level. The challenge is not to aim for something nice to be written on your grave stone, but for your fingerprints to be left in the lives of those around you, so that the thread of your story is continued. Here are some good words: Care for the land, care for the people. Go forward. Grow and branch forth for the days of your world.
15) Legacy – This is your time. What will you do with it? What will your legacy be?
There is so much to reflect on in the chapters of this book. We are in danger of rearranging the systems in which we work, without dealing with the issues of the heart. I will keep on saying this: Culture is vital. If we do not get our values and our culture right, we build on very shaky foundations and our house will not stand. Taking the time to reflect and build our culture together will enable us to create a legacy for the future that will be beautiful and life giving.
I’ve recently finished reading the extraordinary book, “Legacy”, by James Kerr. It is a book about the culture of The All Blacks, the most “successful” sports team in the world. If you are involved in leadership, at any level, especially if you are passionate about developing the culture of your team, I would heartily recommend that you buy yourself a copy – it serves as a great manual! As you might expect in a book which flows out of Rugby Union, there are 15 principles to align with the 15 players in the team. I will therefore make this a 2 part reflection, to make it more readable!
I’ve written a few blogs on here about the importance of culture (of joy and kindness) in health and social care, and indeed, the IHI so clearly show that building a “Culture of Joy” in healthcare is one of the core pillars to creating a truly excellent, safe and sustainable health and social care system. If we get the culture right, everything else follows. We spend so much time focused on vision, process and measurement, but nowhere near enough time to establishing a really healthy and flourishing culture. So, how do we do it? How do we build a really good culture? Well….I am no expert, but I want to share what I’ve learnt from this book and am learning through the work we are doing here in Morecambe Bay.
1) Character – it is everything. Team is not built on good players, it is built on good character, which is far more important than talent. Good character starts with humility. No one is ever too important to do the most menial of tasks. This has to be modelled.
2) Adapt – Darwin said, “it is not the strongest species who survive, but those most able to adapt.” In a target driven system, like health and social care, with edicts handed out from on high, we need to develop the kind of culture that is able to take the strain, to bend, to mold and not lose focus at the whim of every new government initiative. Adaptation means we need a compelling vision for the future and the investment in our teams to move well together, especially at times of pressure.
3) Purpose – My coach, Nick Robinson, asked me a great question the other day. I have been really struggling with the idea of ambition. For me, ambition is a word that is tied up in negative ideas like selfishness and arrogance (that isn’t true for everyone – just carries those connotations for me!). So, we explored what a better word might be to help me think about the future. The word we agreed on was purpose. So then he asked me, “So, what is your purpose? Who are you here to serve? And where in the world does that need to be manifest?” At one of the lowest points in their history, after crashing out of the World Cup in the Quater Finals – a match they really should have won, a group of the All Blacks shut themselves in a room to rediscover their purpose. One of the coaches spoke 6 words and it began to change everything. “Better people make better All Blacks.” This is true in every context. Better people make better doctors. Better people make better nurses. Better people make better managers. Better people make better receptionists. Better people make better leaders. We spend an inordinate amount of time developing the skills of our teams, making sure they can ‘deliver the goods’, but we invest precious little time, space or energy in ensuring that we develop better people. Do we help people confront their own ego issues? Do we enable people to get to grips with their shadows, their struggles, their root issues? It really matters who people are, far more than what they can do. Perhaps our development days should focus far more on tools like the enneagram and strengths finder than on some of the “mandatory training” we always make the priority.
4) Responsibility – this forms so much of the ‘culture of joy’ I have blogged about before. People need to know they are trusted to do the work they have to do. We have to create a culture of ownership, accountability (not micromanagement) and trust. The All Blacks talk about a collaborative culture in which individual talents can rise and flourish. Are we crushing the creativity of our teams by not allowing people to really come into their own?
5) Learn – for people to be at the top of their game, they need space and time to develop their skills. In a global landscape, we need to look beyond our own boundaries, discover new approaches, learn best practices and push the boundaries. It’s not OK to just settle for something a bit rubbish – learning allows us to strive for excellence in our work. There is wisdom in this Maori saying: “The first stage of learning is silence. The second is listening.”
6)Whanau – Rudyard Kipling wrote: “For the strength of the Pack is in the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is in the Pack.” The being of team comes from within. In the All Blacks, there isn’t space for “dickheads”. Team is everything and those who want the glory for themselves will not find a place within it. The All Blacks build on this principle. It is better to be punched in the stomach than stabbed in the back, or as the Arab proverb says: “It is better to have a thousand enemies outside your tent, than one inside.” We need to create a healthy culture of being able to challenge damaging attitudes and behaviour so that when we move, we move as one in adaptable formation, like the spearhead formation of birds as they fly.
7) Expectations – There is a saying the All Blacks use: “Aim for the highest cloud, so that if you miss it, you will hit a lofty mountain.” Why aim for something a bit rubbish? If we benchmark ourselves against the best practices, we will strive to be the best we can be. It’s OK to fail – that’s what a learning culture is about. But it’s also ok to not set your standards low and expect failure. Let’s expect the best from our teams so that we create a culture of excellence in the way we work.
8) Practice Under Pressure – I think this is especially important in a geography, like ours, in which we may not see some things very commonly. Simulation labs are vital and exposure to other working environments, so that we learn how to deal with serious situations with a calm head. When the heat is turned up, as it so often is in our working environments, we need cool heads and steady hands. Ensuring our training is as robust and pressured as possible, makes us ready for the times our skills are needed most. For this reason, we must not mollycoddle our medical, nursing and therapy students too much. We must expose them and our junior staff and help them be prepared for our times of greatest pressure.
In the next blog, I will focus on the other 7 principles of building a team culture. Plenty to think about above though, eh?!
Over the last year, I’ve had the privilege of spending some time on a leadership programme with the NHS Leadership Academy. One of the things it has helped me to do is talk more openly and honestly about what is important to me, what shapes me, what makes me – me! I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the word ‘authenticity’ and how I can be true to my deeply held values, no matter where I find myself, or whose company I may be in.
I did most of my ‘growing up’ at University with an incredible set of friends, who have remained at the core of my life. One of our founding principles as a bunch of mates was that we would not do fear or shame, but that we would be honest and open with each other about whatever we were going through. I found myself being able to talk about stuff that had been bottled up for years and making me feel rubbish about myself and as I did so, I found I was loved, not for what I did or performed but for who I was – just me, as me.
This kind of open and honest vulnerability sits as one of my core values in leadership because I believe it keeps me humble and permissions others to open up also. For some, there is a fear that if you show weakness, others may turn it against you – but that is a voice of fear that I personally will not succumb to. The depth of relationship that we form in any team is determined by our own ability to open up and show our true colours. I believe that being honest about where we are failing or weak allows others to be honest too and it makes us more human, builds connection and allows us to build team with real integrity.
Personally, I am continually influenced and changed by that man, Jesus. In the Gospel of John, we are told that any time anyone questioned his identity, his legitimacy or his authority, his answer was simple: I am, who I am. For us to be authentic, we need to know who we are, so that whoever we are with, we remain true to our core values. Throughout our life’s journey we are continually challenged to decide which way we will walk. Will we walk the easy way of life, in which we allow our ‘ego’ to remain in tact and have people see a projection of ourselves? Or will we choose the more difficult but life-giving way, of letting our ego be stripped back, so that our true self can be seen?
What I have witnessed over the last few years, is that leadership can rob people of their humanity. The structures we work within can end up dehumanising us, as the ego becomes puffed up and we find ourselves protecting the image we have projected. As we climb the ladder of responsibility, we can begin to modify our behaviours and as we do so, we begin to subtly let go of our core values. Perhaps we forget where we came from, or we feel the need to protect our position. Perhaps, we’ve never dealt with our own sense of entitlement or the privilege of our background which helped to propel us into positions of influence in the first place. Perhaps we never really confronted our own shadow and have carried on building our own ego project, which somehow permissions us to act in very unhealed ways. Perhaps we get proud and lose the humility to accept that we don’t know the answer to many of the questions thrown at us, but instead of opening up the conversation towards a collaborative process, we lock down the control and increase the demands on our teams. Whatever the reason, hierarchy so easily dehumanises us, unless we work really hard to subvert it.
There is a real art to leading in the midst of complexity, due to the interplay of mechanistic structures and the living systems of which we are a part. The ability to resist the the demanding expectations of the behavioural norms of the machine, whilst ensuring the job gets done and setting a culture of kindness, openness, trust, honour, joy and dare I say it, love, takes bravery, time and audacity. All too often, especially at a regional and national level, I am seeing that people seem to forget who they are and begin to behave in ways that lack authenticity, treating those who were their peers, only a few months previously with disdain. I tire of seeing people talk down their noses at others, or gather people into a room to shout at them, as if this is an effective means of communication. When we see it, we must call it out. We must subvert it before submitting to it. Only by doing so, will we expose it for the phony, imperial nonsense that it is and find a way through to a kinder, more human way of leading. As my great friend, Roger Mitchell says, “Love is the purpose of everything.” A great question for leaders is, “How much love am I loosing here?” If the answer is, “not a lot!”, then maybe think about why on earth you are leading and how you might do it a whole lot more authentically!
The King’s Fund have just released an excellent video to help explain how the NHS works and some of the complex things going on in it at the moment. It doesn’t shy away from making it crystal clear who is in charge of the money, nor the difficulties we’re facing in staffing and resource allocation. Have a watch of it and then keep reading!
What is particularly important to understand, especially where we are learning to work in new ways together, like here in Morecambe Bay, is just how inconsistent and incongruent the messages are that we receive from the leadership structures of the NHS.
So, here in the Bay, we are forming an Accountable Care System, which brings together different health & social care commissioners and providers to work more effectively together. We are forming great relationships, breaking down walls and barriers to work together, whilst tackling significant budget issues as we try and ensure that we deliver care in the most excellent, safe and sustainable way for our population (whom we are trying to include fully in the co-design of the services we provide).
One might think, as we are being actively encouraged to reorganise ourselves in this way, that the Department of Health, NHS England, NHS Improvement and the CQC would all be pulling together to support these changes. One might presume that they would ensure the various contracts and ways of paying and assessing us would enable us to do this important work – the opposite is in fact the case!
On the one hand we are encouraged to ensure we work more efficiently and “cut the waste” out of our system, but when we do so, the contracts in place are working against us!! we literally being told to work one way and then penalised if we do! It is an entirely schizophrenic existence and creates an extraordinary amount of wasted time and energy.
I’m not exactly sure what it is that is causing the disconnect between the different regulatory bodies. However, as they require of us a new collaborative way of working that ensures greater efficiency and improved models of care…..perhaps it could be better modelled and enabled by those in the “centre”. This would give the entire reorganization a great deal more integrity. Cultural and behavioural change is talked about a great deal and we are enacting it despite the perverse drivers working against us. I wonder if the same is true at HQ, Elephant and Castle. This mixed messaging needs to stop and those of us leading systems, working with great complexity, need to be given the permission, support, and enablers to really flourish.
We are heading for a massive flu outbreak this winter across the UK and Europe, USA and Canada. Australia have had a seriously nasty outbreak of a strain of flu called H2N3. It held their health care service to ransom over their winter and we need to be ready for it. The best thing you can do is have your flu jab – free on the NHS, here in the UK for those who are most vulnerable. If you get flu this winter, don’t worry, we’re on it! Public Health England are masterful at making sure we are ready and in partnership with the NHS, we will be armed and ready. But the best medicine is preventative. So, PLEASE, get your flu jab as soon as possible and make sure it is the QUADRIVALENT type that covers the strain we are most at risk from! Let’s stay healthy and well this winter.