This post is about celebrating unsung commitment at work and what happened when my sisters and one of their friends, who are all senior nurses, joined me for the launch party for my book last year in London.
Commitment at the sharp end
I have a number of reasons for writing the book, all of which were itches that had to be scratched. One of them is that in all the ra-ra about Social Business, Enterprise 2.0 and Smart Working as a ‘new paradigm’, I was perceiving little about the democratising promise of social technologies in linking people at the operational sharp end of organisations to peers from whom they can learn and get support.
In my work years ago on factory floors, what consistently struck me was the number of people who went out of their way to do the best job they could possibly do. This was nothing to do with what management required of them. This was about enforcing their personal standards on themselves.
I think of a man who operated a particularly ancient machine in a factory that made springs. He had hand-written a schedule of settings so that when he was not at work, his colleagues could use the correct settings, keeping the machine in tip-top condition. I also think of machine operators working in a factory, where the relationship with management was under strain. Redundancies had been mishandled but even there people were telling me that they were doing their best “to put things right”. And so it is with many others in operational jobs.
I have left out B., my brother who is also a nurse on D.’s team, and A. and E. (T.’s daughters), and M.(who is another brother’s wife). They are all equally good old-fashioned nurses who care deeply about the people in their care. But the story I am about to tell you involves D., T. and C.
My friend Janet Parkinson suggested we might all want to go to an Edith Piaf entertainment at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the South Bank. We did and thoroughly enjoyed it. At the interval when the lights went up, for all of about fifteen minutes, we were immediately into a conversation about how the girls went about complying with the targets they were expected to observe.
This is not in a slavish, unthinking fashion. One said that if they are going to have to operate under this regime, then she focuses on the targets for performance indicators that are the most meaningful. They argue against what they see as unfair assessments, which takes courage – especially if they have been marked as ‘failing’.
The following evening
The following evening was the informal party for the book launch. I was already exhausted. I had a bad cold or, as Janet says, ‘pig flu’ from living in the country! The journey to London from Paris had been fraught, having been caught up in cancelled trains due to snow. I was delighted and grateful that my friends had turned out to support me.
On top of all that nervous energy, eight of us had gone on to have dinner after the party and had a high old time with cocktails and delicious food. We jumped into a black taxi back to the hotel, where we had a nightcap in one of our rooms. By 1.30 am when we went to sleep, I was wiped out.
Despite this, I was riveted listening to T. telling me in the dark, as we both fell asleep, about her approach to compassion in the job. She says that we will all be in a position one day where we will need a nurse to wipe our bottoms. And when that happens, when we are ill, vulnerable and feeling scared, that we will need to be reassured that the nurse doing this for us is not in any way repelled.
She says that she talks to patients while carrying out these intimate procedures. She wants them to appreciate that this is a service she carries out willingly. She never, ever forgets in the routine of all this that she is talking to a person.
Obsessed by care and high standards
These girls (women but I think of them as girls – they are my wee sisters) are not just committed to their work, they are obsessed by it to the extent that we cannot go out for a night out without telling me about their work. And carrying on while I fall asleep exhausted!
I cannot resist telling you just one more story. It is 2006 and we are all sitting around at D.’s home. Our mother has just died and we are in those strange days between the death and funeral. The company includes the family and friends who are nurses. The conversation is unsurprisingly about death.
One of D.s friends said that when someone dies on her ward she, as the senior nurse in charge, tells the nurses for whom she is responsible that the final offices, washing the body, is the final act of kindness anyone will do for that person. It is therefore a sacred duty, to be undertaken with the most possible care. She also insists on a guard of honour, where nurses momentarily stop what they are doing while the body leaves the ward.
And this is all her own doing, without management direction or edict.
Celebrating unsung commitment
My sisters are ashamed and appalled by all the failings and lack of compassion on display in the Francis Report. Obviously not all nurses have their high standards regarding patient care, nor their empathetic professionalism. However, neither are they unique.
I am willing to bet that in other target-driven, power-obsessed, empathy-lacking and compliance-enforcing organisations and industries that there are hidden armies of committed people trying to do their best despite the dysfunctional systems within which they work.
My suggestion is this – that we (me, you and everyone we can persuade to do the same thing) find places online where we can tell as many stories as we possibly can, and as often as we possibly can, about similar people doing their work with compassion and care for the people to whom they give service.