The British Society of Echocardiography’s Chief Executive, Ms Joanne Sopala, shares what wellbeing means to her on a personal level - and how we can't all be expected to be superheroes.
This week marks World Wellbeing Week and I thought I’d take the opportunity to think about wellbeing and look at what the Society is doing to promote it in the echo workforce.
What is wellbeing and why is it important? If you subscribe to #MedTwitter you’d be forgiven for believing that wellbeing is simply another mandated webinar to endure in your own time! But what’s the BSE view? (Or at least, my view.)
The Oxford English Dictionary defines wellbeing as
the state of being or doing well in life; happy, healthy, or prosperous condition; moral or physical welfare (of a person or community).
At a time when the echo community is facing so many pressures in the workplace, not to mention the relentless challenges of everyday life and a permanently depressing news cycle, this may appear an impossible dream! And yet, wellbeing has never been so important to our lives and livelihoods.
The nature of your role as echocardiographers requires a level of care for others. The work you do is pivotal to the wellbeing of many people. You are responsible for early detection of heart disease, confirmation of complex diagnoses; you give people back their lives by demonstrating their heart is in fact healing or even healthy again. I’m told you don’t always see people when they are the best version of themselves. You see them when they are ill, worried, anxious, frustrated, afraid, depressed and distraught and it’s your innate selflessness which helps to alleviate some of this restlessness. As I understand it, your expertise is also called on to confirm when it is time to stop treatment, to ensure people are as comfortable as possible, thus ensuring people can die with dignity.
Many of you are also responsible for team members, mentees and trainees, again requiring the additional mental and physical energy it takes to look after others as well as yourself. All whilst being repeatedly reminded that we have a backlog of cases and we need to see/do more! When coupled with juggling family and all other responsibilities, is it any wonder so many of you are experiencing and/or talking about burnout?
Remember to take care of yourself. You can't pour from an empty cup.
It may sound clichéd, but it is true. In order to be able to look after others we need to look after ourselves. It’s logical and yet it is the thing we all forget, or at the very least, put at the bottom of the priority list. Yet even the smallest changes can make a difference.
For some reason I have never really liked the term self-care. I suspect part of me saw it as 'selfish' – I am definitely of the generation which was taught to put others first. But in fact, it is not. It is essential and failing to look after ourselves over the long term whilst trying to look after others can only end with us feeling worn out, at best and exhausted and resentful at worst.
For some time, I think I rationalised it as ‘I must look after myself to be able to look after everyone else’ – probably not what self-care gurus are looking for, but it worked for me!
A quick Google search defines self-care as
the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one's own health and the practice of taking an active role in protecting one's own wellbeing and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.
There are thousands of models, books and suggestions for self-care, but it really doesn’t have to be complicated.
For me it is about making sure I do take a break and get out in the fresh air. It is all too easy when the work is piling up to 'just' work through a lunch break or 'just' stay an hour or two later in the office. The thing I am most guilty of is 'just' squeezing in one more meeting in the day to help someone out. But the truth is these are the things that can 'just' push us over the edge. They certainly don’t help my productivity half as much as stepping away from my desk for half an hour and going for a walk!
My other self-care crime is not taking my holidays. I can easily avoid making the time to book holidays and I worry that there will be more to do when I come back so it’s not worth taking time off. I can’t remember a holiday I have taken in the last ten years where I didn’t take my laptop! But earlier this year I was reminded it is a fool’s errand. I was seeing a physiotherapist every 2-3 weeks for neck and shoulder pain and my physio said that what I needed was a holiday. Knowing me well she recognised she couldn’t get me to book two weeks off but persuaded me to take a couple of long weekends. And surprise, surprise, she was right – I just needed a bit of rest.
I have also come to realise that it is important to demonstrate these behaviours to my team. It is not good enough to tell them to take their breaks and holidays and then to be seen to do otherwise. It turns out 'Do as I say and not as I do' is not a great leadership mantra!
Writing this feels a little self-indulgent. It really isn’t meant to be about me. However, the other thing I have learned in recent years is that people are afraid to speak out about these things. We are all expected to be superheroes. We are not expected to acknowledge struggles or perceived weakness. A number of people who have participated in the BSE Resilience in Leadership programme have admitted that this is how they initially felt.
Resilience in Leadership Programme
In 2020 the BSE launched this course for echo leads. Eleven echocardiographers participated in the pilot and Dave Hatton and Kam Rai shared their experience in this earlier blog. Earlier this year another ten embarked on the programme. The initiative is facilitated by The Kairos Project.
The objectives of this programme were to exercise a duty of care: