Put your own oxygen mask on first...

For many of us it will have been some time since we heard those words in an airline safety demonstration, but, as we continue to grapple with the pandemic and all it brings, I think it’s a useful phrase to reflect upon. As leaders, in times of crisis we strive to remain calm, collected and in control so we can “hold” our staff and create the conditions for them to safely practice. I think it was a chair of the CBI that talked about having a mask of command on the back of his office door that he put on as his public face. But are there unintended consequences of this approach? Could this be seen as us occupying the space of hero leader and placing more pressure on our staff to also “cope”, especially in a world in which much of our interaction is still virtual? Are we putting undue pressure on ourselves? Do we need to find a balance between making it safe and also showing our own vulnerability and humanity? Maybe the greatest strength of leadership at this time is to be able to say its ok to not be ok and to support others to do the same.

As some of you may know, I have the privilege of being a twin hatter so have had the opportunity to work right across the whole system in recent months. What I see everywhere I turn are amazing, resilient, committed staff who just keep going and doing everything they can to support the most vulnerable in society. But I also see staff that are absolutely knackered and scared of what is still to come. As a leader, the challenge is: do I stick with the mask of command, or do I admit I’m knackered too (and a bit scared)? I’ve made the decision I am going for the latter - there you go I’ve said it – I am knackered – we all are.

By owning this as system leaders, we free up others to say the same and then we can all find collective and new solutions together. In Yorkshire and Humber we have been having these discussions at all levels. We have been working with partners to put in place debrief sessions which support staff to recognise and understand the trauma impact of the pandemic on them – just providing time for groups to come together to share and voice this. We are also having a joint DCS, DASS, and DPH meeting where we are looking at how, as leaders of the system, we can support our workforce to move forward together. But perhaps the best thing we can do as leaders at this time is model behaviour and really look after ourselves, so others get the permission to do the same. Good old Maslow is really helpful here - reflect on the pyramid and honestly answer how many of you are meeting even your basic needs – then make a firm plan that you will do. Book a lunch break and be very visible that you are doing it – go wild swimming, take up yoga. Whatever it is, do it - and tell everyone you are doing it. Give them permission and space to do the same.

Go on – I dare you – put your own oxygen mask on first.


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