In my "day job," I work for the NHS in a hospital. I've worked in a variety of different hospitals over the past decade, with inpatients and outpatients, on wards and in clinics. They've all been unique - but also, depressingly similar in some very specific ways. This week, I wanted to write about some of those similarities, and the gift I've decided to give myself in 2019.
Time, time, time...
In a lot of ways, I'm sure working in healthcare is the same as any other job. There never seem to be enough hours in the day to complete every project, and I often spend time at home thinking about the things on my ever-expanding "to do list." The difference for me is that, for some of the things I have to do, I'm partially or wholly responsible for another person's well-being. That means that if I don't get things done, people suffer (I feel, unnecessarily) for my lack of ability. And although I don't really have one of the types of jobs that means people could die through my lack of attention, I still feel the weight. That can mean, for me and also many of my colleagues we can neglect ourselves in subtle and not-so-subtle ways (especially the nurses among you, I see you!)
Living with discomfort
It usually starts in subtle ways. Becoming so engrossed in a project that you don't realise your leg fell asleep half an hour ago. Not stopping for lunch because none of your colleagues are and who really has time for that, right? Staying an extra hour into the evening to catch up on letters. Not using the bathroom all day, partly because you haven't had a drink since you left your house this morning and partly because you just can't spare the extra few minutes.
As a trainee, I was frequently rushing around and frequently anxious that I was doing the "right thing." Over the last decade, the small changes to my lifestyle, the ways in which I've sacrificed comfort, have manifested themselves in a number of fairly unhealthy ways: my body no longer tells me that I'm thirsty, and I have to remind myself to drink regularly or I just don't - usually, I just don't. I can work through most things - colds, migraines, and on one memorable occasion some painful insect bites that with hindsight I should have gotten checked at least two days before I actually did. But most of all, I've learned to live with subtle discomfort - with pins and needles from half-asleep limbs, with the pain of a full bladder, with a rumbling stomach, with a mild headache from low fluid intake. I know a lot of healthcare professionals will identify with this, but I'm certain that it's not unique to the NHS.
In addition to living with discomfort, I'm also setting myself up for health issues further down the line. Kidney stones and decreased kidney function, high blood pressure, muscle weakness and fatigue, and poor skin can all be symptoms of chronic dehydration and that's not to mention lack of adequate nutrients and whatever is going to happen to my legs if I don't stop sitting on them for hours on end (I have a habit of tucking them underneath me when sitting that probably isn't good for me).
Here's the thing: I know deep down that eating lunch and drinking a glass of water won't kill my productivity for the day. It won't make any difference to the patient in front of me if I'm two minutes late because I need to use the bathroom. If I'm struggling to concentrate because of my cold, I'm no good to my colleagues that day anyway. But we get so used to the narrative that tells us that to be truly worthwhile we need to suppress our own needs in the service of others. That it's a competition to be won by the person whose child can't remember her name and who hasn't slept for 72 hours. I've started to see it in some of the trainee psychologists I meet, and it's making me think about the messages I want them to take from me. I want them to know that it's possible to have a reasonable work-life balance, that living with chronic discomfort isn't the only way to be - and for them to know that, I have to start believing it myself. I have to start leading by example, and allowing that to ripple out across the dominant narrative of burnout and self-punishment. And I want my colleagues to start believing that too.
The gift of comfort
So this year at work I am giving myself the gift of relative comfort. I will eat lunch in the break room every day, away from my computer. I will drink some water every day, whether I feel like it or not. I will use the bathroom when I need to, not when I'm at breaking point. I will get up and move before my limbs go to sleep - even in sessions with patients if I have to. I'll explain to them, and to my colleagues, what I'm doing, with the hope that people will understand that they don't have to live with the small discomforts any more. And I'll hope that it makes a difference to my health, and to the ways in which people behave around me, in a positive direction. If not, at least I'll be well-hydrated!
What kind of "small discomforts" have you been tolerating? Let me know in the comments.
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects