Have you ever been on a training course that's packed an emotional punch? Do you dread having to talk about yourself in public? In this blog post NHS employee Lucy Thatcher shares her experience of being on a training session run by brap - and how she dealt with some of the emotional issues it raised.
We are our own worst enemies. Someone said that to me a week ago, whilst I was crying in front of roughly 40 people, whom I had only known for two days. I have carried that phrase around with me for the past week, whilst considering just how much of an enemy I had been to myself recently. I know my own weaknesses and I am familiar with my insecurities and because of how obvious they are to me, I presume that the rest of the world can see them, like grey clouds on a rainy day. In a heartbeat I can talk myself back into my comfort zone, if and when I dare to venture out of it. This is neither helpful nor productive. There is no growth to be had in our comfort zones. Earlier this year, I was dragged out of my comfort zone in order to begin an amazing journey of self-exploration, cleverly disguised as a leadership course called The Stepping Up Programme for Aspiring BAME Leaders.
I walked into the Thistle Barbican hotel on Wednesday morning with a cold. I couldn’t hear. My sinuses were blocked (a few days later I would discover I have sinusitis but at the time I just figured an invisible elephant had decided to sit on my face) and my freezing hands started to burn with the sudden rise in temperature. Even though I knew breakfast would be provided, I had decided to eat before I came so as not to appear as the hungry lady hanging around the buffet, first impressions count after all. I didn’t feel like drinking any more coffee and so I just stood there looking extremely uncomfortable. I checked my phone, I’m not sure what for, to see if Facebook had any life changing status updates or if a really important spam email had arrived, whatever I was checking for, it wasn’t there.
I felt my nervousness increasing. I jeered at myself for being too afraid to start a conversation. I raised my head and looked around. There was a group of women already talking and another woman on her phone. Who should I start a conversation with? What would I say? I pondered how anyone made friends in their adulthood. As children it felt simple, we walked up to people and asked “can I play with you?” You can’t do that as an adult, or can you? Where is the law that says I can’t introduce myself to someone new? There isn’t one! I would go onto learn that the ability to network would be vital in my progression within the NHS. I was thankful when a sweet looking, older black lady caught my eye and invited me to join the conversation with the other women in the group. I conversed with the group politely, using my version of good English which is reserved especially for situations just like this and telephone conversations.
Tackling the snowy white peaks
I remember being quite thankful that no one else seemed to know the exact structure of the course. I would hate to come across as poorly prepared or uninformed. The information I had, suggested it was a leadership course aimed at Black and Minority Ethnic groups (BME), who work within the NHS. The course had been designed in response to a report named ‘The Snowy White Peaks’ written by Roger Kline in 2014. The report is extremely interesting, and I urge everyone to give it a read but especially those who work within the NHS. In summary the report looks at the NHS trusts in London and compares the demographic of its workforce compared to the demographic of the community it serves. This should be a non-issue, after all the NHS boasts being one of the most diverse employers in the world. The report highlights though that the NHS is built on the backs of BME staff; it is bottom heavy with BME staff. The senior positions, the management, are overwhelmingly white, even in London. It seems the higher you go in the NHS the whiter everything becomes, hence Snowy white peaks.
Does that matter? Of course it matters. The people at the top are making decisions that affect lives and livelihoods. There is immense evidence that suggests that when services are commissioned by the NHS, these services fail to meet the needs of the most deprived communities who need them most, mainly BME. If there was more diversity at the top the needs of BME communities may be given a voice. I feel I am running the risk of turning this piece of self-reflection into an essay about the short comings of the NHS. This is not my intention because so far I have done well within the organization and I intend to keep on doing well. I am extremely proud to be a part of an organization so vital to the people it serves.
Before I attended the course I was asked to prepare a lifeline. They gave me an instruction to think about the highs and the lows of my life and how this has shaped me into the person I am today. I grew concerned then! What course expects you to share your whole life history with people you have only just met? Do I tell them all that I am a university drop out, that I suffered with postnatal depression and anxiety? That I once got very slim and felt this was the greatest achievement of my life and now I have put the weight back on again? Do I say that, when I decided to leave university I felt the most empowered I had ever felt in my 22 short years, that I felt that was the first decision I made for myself without trying to please anyone else? Should I say that the few months I spent in Kenya away from any and everything I had ever known felt like the first time I met myself and heard my own voice? Do I say that the birth of my niece cemented my attachment to my family and my continuing relationship with her was the only thing that convinced me I could be someone’s mother? Do I mention that my Mother having breast cancer made me want to be self-reliant so that I wouldn’t be lost without her? These are things I don’t usually open dialogue with. I can write about my experiences, I can stand in front of a crowd and recite poetry about episodes in my life history and yet the thought of just sitting down in a group without any pretence makes me feel uncomfortable. I should have realised then that this would not be like any other course I had ever attended. There would be no space to hide behind my art or professionalism.
I found a seat in the large meeting room and quickly the other BME NHS employees from around the country took their seats too. There were two black women at the front ready to teach. They introduced themselves, Joy and Diane. I immediately noticed one thing, their earrings. How shallow am I?! They both had on large earrings, beautiful adornments. There was nothing small or discreet about the earrings. I was instantly jealous and inspired. I love earrings, the bigger the better, and while I appreciate why they are not safe clinically, I refuse to wear them to work or meetings in fear of being judged as “ghetto” or coming across as unprofessional. These women at the front looked neither ghetto or unprofessional and I was wounded because I did not have the confidence that morning to be congruent with myself and wear my earrings with pride.
We were asked to get into groups of five. The instructions were to create a group as diverse as possible. This meant we had to acknowledge each other’s differences in order to build a group that was diverse on several platforms. This felt in direct conflict with worklife. I feel I have been trained to pretend that I cannot see the differences between colleagues based solely on their appearance. It felt uncomfortable at first to explain what the differences where in our group. My group of five people consisted of two men and three women: a Black Nigerian, an Asian Indian, an Asian Filipino, a mixed race Brit and a White Lithuanian. The age range was 32-52 years with a range of disciplines within the NHS: adult nursing, mental health nursing, health advising, radiography and finance. Personally I think we won on the diversity challenge. I had a tonne of preconceived ideas about what it may be like to work with each person based solely on their appearance. I was wrong about every single one! This challenged me on my thoughts about prejudices. If I had preconceived ideas about each person is it surprising that other people have those same thoughts about me?
We were asked to share our lifelines in our group. I was surprised to hear the challenges that each person had overcome just to get to where they were today. This fostered an environment of positive regard for each person in the group, despite all of us having flaws. I felt personally invested in each person. It is surprising what a little self-disclosure can achieve. We allowed ourselves to be vulnerable open and honest with the group and in return we have formed a team who are accepting of each other’s difference and appreciative of each other’s journey. This is invaluable considering that the work place can be so unforgiving. It made me consider how open I am with my own work colleagues about my life. Do I share my thoughts and feelings openly?
brap CEO Joy Warmington
I think back to my first six months back at work after my maternity leave. I struggled. My daughter was not sleeping, I felt as if she was constantly unwell, I was feeling immensely guilty about being away from her. I became increasingly irritable, unsure of my work, anxious about making decisions and reluctant to take on any further responsibility in my role. Some of my work was sloppy and rushed. I began to believe that people were discussing my poor performance behind my back and I was paranoid about what my colleagues thought of me. Instead of talking openly about my struggles, I got myself trapped into a cycle of believing that people didn’t like me, that I was considered to be a slacker and that I was not a valued member of the team. The negativity I radiated, I can only assume damaged relationships further. I was guarded constantly and totally unprepared to hear any feedback or challenging comments. I eventually took six weeks off work to work on my mental health. I acknowledged that I had been battling with post-natal depression and anxiety ever since the birth of my daughter and that I was slowly beginning to lose the battle.
Since returning to work I have found it difficult to shake the feeling that my standards have slipped. Over the two days I swung furiously backwards and forwards regarding my ongoing career in the NHS. I went from wanting to progress, to wanting to leave and start a fresh and then right back again.
Letting the tears fall
Homework was set. We were to request feedback from work colleagues about what we were like to work with. This feedback would be given to one of our peers on the course and be reported back to us. I would be forced out of my comfort zone and be made to confront the fears about what my colleagues thought about me. I would not be able to run away from it, or pretend that it didn’t matter. I would have to hear their opinions on me and still have to work with them. I would then have to address it. I panicked. My anxiety ran away with the negative ideas that I had in my head of what my colleagues would say. I felt as if every effort I had put into the course over the last two days was about to amount to nothing once they heard all the bad things that the feedback would definitely conjure. I felt like every effort I had made to make a fresh start after my depression would be worthless and that my efforts would amount to nothing.
Someone across the room noticed me squirming at the thought of this task and asked if I was ok. I felt the first tear fall. I let them fall. Crying in public is also a taboo for me and yet there I was crying my heart out. I had been an enemy to myself for so long. Here I was battling my fears to do something good for myself, trying to be my own best friend and cheerleader but my fear of what other people thought of me threatened to keep me firmly in my comfort zone and scare me away from progression.
Nothing bad happened when I cried in public. I was still considered positively or so I hope. Emotions are a very funny thing. We all have them. You have to deal with them in one way or another because eventually they pop up when you least expect it. When you are no longer in survival mode and you let your guard down, those sneaky little emotions that you have been refusing to acknowledge crawl to the surface and open the flood gates. I refuse to let fear control me. I may cry, be uncomfortable and feel embarrassed when I get things wrong but I refuse to let that scare me. After all, God loves a trier!
The greatest thing about the course was that it not only helped me to acknowledge the hurdles in the system that BME staff have to overcome but it also forced me to look at the road blocks to my success that I had control over and the ones I may have placed there myself. This is empowering. I don’t feel helpless. I feel like there is something I can do to work on myself and my success within this and any other organization should I choose to leave and pursue other things. What I loved about the course was that Diane and Joy fostered an environment which made it acceptable to be honest with each other. They were honest with us. There was constant feedback and somehow this made it easier to take. It was constructive and it felt as if they really wanted to see us succeed and make a difference. I think too often people try to tear each other down in order to deal with difference rather than address it openly and discuss ways in which each and every one of us can contribute to a better workforce. Joy and Diane set a great example of good leadership!
I feel like BME people within the NHS often say to ourselves “If you get half way, you are doing well, be thankful, be grateful, do not rock the boat or disturb the status quo.” This course feels like permission and a strategy to upset that status quo and tip the boat right over in order to create a ripple effect which spreads through our communities and inspires others to do the same.
This is an edited version of a blog post that Lucy wrote on her own site here. You can also follow Lucy on Twitter here. If you'd like more information about the Stepping Up Programme - including the next round of registration dates - click here. If you're interested in brap training, you're in the right place.