All of us depend on front line services: they include health, local authorities, education, care, and a myriad of voluntary sector organisations such as charities, help networks, and community groups. They are a safety net, and as stresses grow for most people, we need the support of front line services more than ever. But most of these services are in a severe squeeze between rising demand and shrinking resources. The level of burnout and staff turnover has risen sharply, and the future outlook seems unthinkable.
So we have safety nets getting more ragged, just when they’re even more essential. One good repair strategy is getting front-line staff out into the woods. In this blog, I want to share my own experience, and research which shows why this works.
Nourishing the Front Line
Nourishing the Front Line is a series of one-day workshops which I have helped set up, supported by a grant from Awards for All. These events are at Hazel Hill Wood, a 70-acre retreat centre and educational charity near Salisbury. This wood has proved to be a real catalyst for front line staff. A typical NTFL day might include managers from a hospice and a care home, the director of a small charity, a GP, and a team leader from a local authority. They were probably more surprised than the facilitators to see how helpful these sessions were, and what a role the wood played. Here are some typical comments: “Often when I talked to colleagues about working in Nature it seemed woo-woo or hippy. Today hasn’t felt like that at all, it was well framed, people saw benefit quickly.” “I’m so pleased you’re doing this – it’s been amazing. My main takeaway is how to build trust in teams.” “We’re under such constant pressure at work: it needed a completely different setting like this beautiful wood to enable me and my team leaders to think outside the box, and we believe we can make positive changes.”
Re-visioning the Front Line
One of the major insights from the programmes we’ve already run at Hazel Hill Wood is that a longer, deeper process is needed to help managers in front-line services to create a positive strategy for their work in future: a vision of how the work can be sustainable and satisfying for them and their teams, and how we can meet the changing, growing needs of their clients. To meet this need, we have just launched a new Action Learning Programme, called Re-Visioning Front-line Services. RVFLS is aimed at leaders and managers in small-medium front-line organisations, or of teams in larger ones. We are offering a 6-month learning journey, which includes three one-night residentials using the catalytic setting of Hazel Hill Wood: the first of these is on the evening of October 30, and the day of October 31, 2018. The second and third workshops will be in February and April 2019, dates to be confirmed. As well as the three workshops, the programmes will include an online group, periodic Skype calls, and plenty of scope for sharing resources. We know from the work we’ve already done that leading a front-line team can be [skipped], exhausting, and bewildering. RVFLS aims to create a highly supportive peer group of 8-14 participants, give each other both personal and practical support. Along with this, our team of three facilitators have huge personal experience and a terrific range of processes to offer. The Action Learning format will enable each participant to work on their own chosen focus, which could be individual, team or the whole organisation. The content will be shaped by the group, but the suggested sequence for the workshops is:
- Workshop One: How to keep yourself resilient and motivated as a leader. Rekindling your vision for your personal work and your team’s.
- Workshop Two: Exploring clients needs. Exploring how these needs may evolve in future, and creative ways to serve your clients as your resources shrink further, e.g. re-framing expectations, empowering clients to help themselves.
- Workshop Three: The team. Reviewing the resilience and capacities of your team in relation to current and future demands, and exploring how to grow the skills of super-resilience.
Nature Fascination versus Screen World
It’s still hard to realise how drastically our ways of living and working have changed in the past 5-10 years, and research on the impacts of these changes is only just appearing. A great overview of this research is the book Your Brain on Nature, written by two doctors at Harvard Medical School.
One of the biggest new stresses most people face is massively increased info consumption via screens. This is happening both in the workplace and in leisure time. Americans now consume about 12 hours of information per day from screen sources, and since 1980, info consumption which is not work-related has increased 350%. In effect, most people are now living pretty continually with information overload, and physiological over-stimulation. Heavy internet users score low on emotional intelligence, and general levels of empathic concern have halved in the past 30 years.
Directed Attention Fatigue describes the mental fatigue and stress which arise from a sustained effort of giving our attention to a task or situation. Now imagine how often your attention is distracted by new information from text messages, emails and so on. The problems of DAF have got far worse in recent years. One antidote to this is more experiences of involuntary attention where there is a degree of fascination in the situation, which is just what nature can provide.
Research shows that a key aspect of nature experiences is that they have “intrinsic fascination”, hence they are an effective counterbalance to many modern stresses. A wood offers an especially intense degree of fascination. Time in nature actually induces positive feelings, which can outweigh stress and anxiety. Many thinkers, such as Thomas Berry, believe that deep empathy with nature is the best way to get human behaviour to change and nourish the planet and this book supports that view.
Over my 25 years creating the retreat centre at Hazel Hill Wood, I’ve evolved a model of resilience which helps people to learn from ecosystems.
The scale of problems like burnout and skills shortages are severe in most front-line services, and may get worse before they get better overall. However, I have an optimism I didn’t feel two years ago: I’ve seen how much woods can help, and I’m hopeful that we’re on a positive trend deepening people connection with Nature.
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