Purveyors of Magic Solutions

Doing anything that matters in mental health is a hard sell.

Ask a patient if they actually want to spend a year or so of their life doggedly attending psychoanalytic sessions with someone who doesn’t tell you you’re wonderful, promising instead awkward silences and the dawning realisation that there are no happy-ever-afters.

With no hope of being an A* patient even I’m tempted to go for the once-upon-a-times. Four sessions of self-guided CBT on the promise of  a get-out-of-prison card  from being yourself. Purveyors of Magic Solutions.

From therapy to education, any developmental process means resisting the urge to fall into actual lying in order to tick those impact boxes. A world of ABCs which treats the human condition with a sharp slap on its wrists. One where the top two global diseases of obesity and dementia  have apparently got nothing at all to do with human experience. A mindless version of reality where if you don’t get with the programme you’re the kid in psychic detention with no place in the world to be who you actually are.

Ours is a country where suicide is the highest killer of working age men, internalizing our collective social crisis and turning mental health into an exercise in mindfully zipping it up.

People we have got to grow up.

As any self respecting welfare system will tell you, destruction of social goods can happen within a week of an election. In a commodified system, student-centred-learning and patient-led-care are shriveled up ideals lurking in our coat pockets.  Under the current regime, patient or student satisfaction trumps actual development every single time. Fast track learning becomes an unholy marriage between optimistic grading and student surveys. Therapeutic success based on a Manifesto of Fairy Stories.

Not wishing to sound like a defeated teacher during an Ofsted inspection, learning anything important takes time and has to be based on realities of the people who are doing the learning. This is code for the painful process of growing up.

It is indeed a marketing car crash to point out that growth of any kind involves pain and shame. The pain of not being able to solve everything with a power point and the shame of needing other people to help us do just about anything of any real depth. Learning requires a desire for change on the part of the student rather than the failing ambitions of the teacher, and with it a recognition that we are not perfect and that we need some help. Shameful stuff in a world where nobody with a proper job is allowed to take a holiday for two decades.

I have spent most of my working life as an educator – from Thai activists in the industrial zones of Bangkok to the glorious Nepalese women working in German pharmaceuticals factories. This work over time re-oriented my entire relationship  with the outside world. Moving from left-wing-religiosity where I had the answer comrade, to seeing development as a collective process. Dialogue, genuinely practiced, as the basis for understanding ourselves and the world we live in and finding a way to muddle through. Within this model of adult education, the role of the teacher is to defend these conversations where everyone is allowed to be in contact as equals and as adults, generally in a context where nobody wants to hear it. In my experience this always means psychic blood on the walls, breaking down our deep resistance to accepting ourselves and anyone else as they actually are.

This is the emancipatory stuff of Paulo Freire where human contact trumps the appeal to expertise. As someone who has yet to say the word ‘leadership’ without syntax-hand-gestures and a funny voice I have a natural hostility to authority. This involves the view that even the experts in my field do not in some sense have the answers. This is not having a pop at people who know actual facts but tries to grapple with the psychic reality that it’s through our contact with other faulty human beings who think differently from us that we learn how to survive work. A profound reorientation of what I expect from being in a room with ordinary people.

Working with this model of development means walking the thin line between hypocrisy and genuine knowledge.  I set up Surviving Work not because I’m good at it doing it but precisely because I’m not. As someone who has always struggled to play with the other children there are times when I wonder at the wisdom of my chosen work. A bona fide hypocrite or an ordinary expert? Discuss.

I have until now been a bit backwards about coming forwards about me and my work but it feels like it’s the right time to show a bit of myself, dear reader. So let me introduce you to Surviving Work.

The central objective of Surviving Work is to build my and your capacity to form good relationships with the people around us so that we can collectively build better workplaces. Essentially I’m interested in how to make the best out of a bad lot.

Surviving work attempts to look realistically at working life while maintaining a firm grip on a sense of humour. I do this through my blog and social media, Survival Guides, online learning and face to face events. The Surviving Work Library is filled to the brim with podcasts and top tips about how to survive work from the real experts (people who are actually doing it).

This year Surviving Work will be running short courses for key workers and front line managers on how to survive work through the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations. Our current programmes on bullying, raising concerns and how to manage working life are being delivered through the Tavistock Clinic from October 2015. We will send you more information about this when our shiny leaflets are ready.

I (me) am now writing my next book Surviving Work: How to manage working in health and social care, to be published by Gower in 2016. An interdisciplinary framework using the juicy stuff of employment relations, management, psychoanalysis and adult learning methods to understand and build better places to work. Less laughs than the blog but potentially more useful stuff for people on the frontline.

From June Surviving Work will run as a bi-monthly column for The Conversation called Reports from the Frontline – looking at the realities of working life in health and social care sectors such as bullying, the impact of outsourcing and racism in the NHS. You will continue to receive this blog, dear reader but now on a bi-monthly basis in order for me not to tip the balance into hypocrite.

As you might expect the expertise of this work is based on the stuff of experience (yours) so if you would like to anonymously submit your own Report from the Frontline please click here or contact Elizabeth on [email protected].

We are not purveyors of magic solutions. Nor do we promise to make you thinner or richer. But we will help you survive work.


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