Hindsight and reflection

When I watched The Usual Suspects, the twist at the end made me immediately re-watch the whole film. The extra bit of knowledge meant the same information from the earlier plot had entirely different meaning. The same things happens when you realise someone has lied to you, or manipulated you for some secondary gain – you suddenly need to reappraise all the prior interactions you have had in light of this new insight. It is inevitable as we go through life that we learn additional information that helps us understand things in more sophisticated ways. Just as we learn that our parents are flawed human beings, rather than always right and almost omnipotent, a lot of relationships transpire to be less perfect when the first thrill of connection wears off. It can be quite a challenging process to understand why you were fooled, what you should have noticed, and how you could have avoided the bad feelings that come with realising all was not as it seemed.

In one chapter of my book I talk about the poem “Holes, An Autobiography in five short chapters” by Portia Nelson. It is a nice summary of the patterns we can all fall into, and how it is only reflection and insight that lets us climb out, and eventually learn to avoid falling into similar holes in the future. I found it really helpful realising that there were certain “holes” that I recurrently fall into. In particular, I was susceptible to one when others seem to need my help and support, but keep on taking without recognition of the value of that help or any cost it has for me, until I feel exploited. An early example was a student who volunteered when I was an AP, who I supported to apply for similar posts and to get onto clinical training, before becoming aware she had presented some of my work as her own, and named me as a reference for a job she had been fired from (when I wasn’t her supervisor and didn’t work there, in the expectation I’d say only positive things).

Related to this, perhaps, is my sense of myself never living up to the high expectations I set myself. It means I often assume I’ve done something wrong, until I find out that the other person is getting me muddled up with someone else, or has put the wrong time for the meeting in their diary. I feel acutely guilty if I take too long to write up the notes from a consultation, even if I’ve had time off sick or other crises to deal with. And I always first reflect on my part if there has been a misunderstanding (eg if the builder is asking for much more money than the written quote, and implies that we agreed additional costs for changes to the design – even though I know I would have kept track of that). It also made for very difficult dynamics with an AP who appeared really hard working and humble until I wrote them a reference for training, then started being increasingly critical and undermining, blaming me for their lack of progress in any of the tasks they were employed to do until I felt quite upset. It was only when I shared my feelings with trusted advisors and peers that I was able to recognise that the problem wasn’t with me. I then started to recognise I’d been gaslighted, and that if someone else makes me feel bad, I have no obligation to kept bending around them until they are satisfied.

Sometimes it isn’t new information about what happened or the other person’s motivation, but a new perspective or frame of reference that shows past experiences in a new light. I’ve reflected in past blogs about how what seemed like normal teenage boy behaviours, that were a socially acceptable way for them to show their interest in me (and portrayed in my peer group as something I should be flattered by) were actually quite inappropriate – unwanted, overly persistent and at times clearly non-consensual. Likewise, I learnt the term “stealthing” meant the guy at university who knew my consent was contingent on condom use, and made a show of using one but transpired not have to used it after the fact, was not just a selfish scumbag (as I thought at the time), but had committed a form of rape. The new insight gave a different perspective on past experiences that helped to bolster my trust in my own feelings and ethical judgements. And helped make me even more determined that I wouldn’t be complicit with these patterns again even if it means I sometimes have to risk looking emotional or being seen as a “difficult woman” when I assert my position.

From these relatively small examples in my own life, I also gained a new respect for the task of reprocessing past experiences for those who have lived through abuse and trauma. If a tiny piece of new information, or a new way of looking at things can throw my certainty about my past experiences into doubt and demand a high emotional load to process, how much more demanding it must be for those whose lives were impacted by much more serious or sustained experiences such as childhood sexual abuse, coercive control in a relationship. It will take time and effort to reprocess their own story when they are no longer in the sway of the person who is normalising the abuse. But often we are also fighting against social norms (eg many women are socialised into accepting “grey rape” as being not the real thing, if they didn’t say a clear “no”, or were intoxicated, or went back to his place/invited him home/consented to kissing or prior sexual activity). The meaning of experience is very much in the eye of the beholder, and shaped by cultural narratives. And there are forms of cultural oppression that change our whole sense of self, such as messages from family or religious/cultural groups that lead to people not feeling able to show their authentic sexuality or gender identity (the latter issue somehow being co-opted by both TERFS and right-wing figures who see trans people as an easy target for their “culture wars”). Finding a safe place and social network in which to be your authentic self is so critical for our happiness. Even feeling okay about your body and appearance is a challenge for many people, and finding body positive role models and reaching acceptance of ourselves that isn’t conditional on weight-loss or conforming to popular beauty standards can be life-changing.

A similar shift of needing to reappraise the story by which I understand my experiences happened to me recently in terms of my own body and health. After some quite unpleasant side effects to coming off HRT, including excessive bleeding to the extent I ended up in A&E, I had an ultrasound that suggested I have adenomyosis – a thickening of the endometrium, where lining tissue is mixed in with the muscle wall. Reading up about adenomyosis I discovered that this could explain the nature and extent of the period pains I have experienced since adolescence. It might also explain my negative reaction to the Mirena/Jaydess coil (despite this being a recommended treatment for excess bleeding due to adenomyosis) and the problems I’ve had with menopause. It may also explain why I’ve been prone to gain weight, as excess oestrogen can increase fatty tissue and fatty tissue can increase oestrogen production. But the most striking new info for me was the fact it is associated with premature delivery – as I’ve carried a lot of guilt about not having managed to sustain the pregnancy with my twin daughters to full term, and I’ve never had an explanation for why this happened. So I’ve started to reevaluate what I thought were the truths of my own life and how my body operates. I’ll learn more as I follow up with the consultant gynaecologist next week, but it seems bizarre to have lived with something that has potentially had significant impact on me throughout my adult life without being aware of what it was. But women’s health has always been an area in which medicine has lagged, and for the most part when it comes to menstrual or menopausal issues we suffer quietly. I’ve blogged before about how we need to assert our needs, and yet here I am realising I haven’t done so, as I didn’t realise my experience wasn’t the norm until the symptoms became too intrusive to work around.

Health symptoms also remind us of our own mortality, and the privilege of being healthy and able bodied. Having to reappraise our plans in light of health challenges or functional limitations can be another trigger for reflective hindsight. As can the illness or death of a loved one – or a public figure like the queen. Health is not a meritocracy, and lifespan does not reflect the value of a person. We are not guaranteed to live the average lifespan. We may get more time, we may get less. If we knew today that our time was limited, would we look back and wish we had done things differently? If so, maybe it is worth reflecting on our priorities now, because time is always limited – even if I live another 50 years. I feel incredibly lucky to have spent over a quarter of a century feeling loved by someone I love, to have had the benefit of a supportive family, and to have wonderful children who I get to spend time with every day. So the big building blocks of my life are firmly in the right place. However, I’m sure that there are small changes that could help me to spend less time on work and trying to make the future opportunities we have better, and to focus on the joy available within each day. Reading back over this blog, which I started eight years ago, I can see progress in some areas (I’m much clearer about my values, and what I want to do professionally, and have a tighter focus in how I want to make impact in the world). But I also see themes where I identified the need to make positive change that are still pertinent in my life today. So I need to think why I haven’t been able to prioritise self-care more, or to get rid of the physical or metaphorical clutter in my life, and how I can make space to be creative, spend more time in nature and connect with like-minded others. Maybe I should get some more coaching or personal therapy to reflect on this.

Gaining insight about ourselves is a particular kind of opportunity to grow and learn. Whilst it can be challenging, that reprocessing of experience over time and with greater information is a core part of personal growth (and a key foundation of the scientific method – that as we understand the facts better, we look again at our working hypotheses and adjust them to fit the new information). Understanding ourselves better can help us reach greater happiness and self-actualisation, and also helps us to understand our place in relationships with others, and in the wider world. It is a key part of the journey towards both happiness and wisdom, and lets us hang onto our values, despite the storms of political decay, inequality and climate change raging around us, which could so easily lead to feelings of despair and helplessness. Maybe the key to happiness in challenging times like this is to reflect on the things that you can change, and find a way to not dwell too much on what you can’t.

I sometimes find it heartening to think about how each honey bee makes less than 1/12th teaspoon of honey in their lifetime, yet pooled together it is enough to ensure the future of the colony. It helps me to remember that to make the world better, you don’t need to solve the big stuff, just focus on doing your 1/12th teaspoon to help others. A bee won’t directly benefit from the honey she makes; instead, it will allow future generations to thrive after she is gone. This too is how we can change the world — by each doing the small things we can, and inspiring others to do likewise.

At the top of the hill

I have posted in the past about the feeling of running a small entrepreneurial venture, and how it can feel like pushing a giant boulder up a hill without much help, and how every time I think I’ve reached the summit a new peak appears. Well, for the first time, it feels like that feeling has changed. Suddenly it feels like I’m at the top of the hill, and I have a team of people to help me think about how to make the boulder roll. It is still a daunting task to get the thing to roll in the right direction, and there is still no guarantee it will start to gain momentum and size, let alone reach a good destination. But it does feel like possibilities are opening up that weren’t in my line of sight before. In fact, I now have the task of trying to scale up my ambitions – which is a really strange thing, after trying to keep my focus very much in the present and not falling backwards for so long!

So what has actually been going on? Well, in 2019 we secured a local small business grant to allow us to prepare to scale up. That gave us £50,000 to cover half the costs of getting some basic equipment and taking on an operations manager. We replaced some very dated laptops, and got some new desks and cupboards for our offices, only for the start of the pandemic to lead us to need to move to working from home.

That was particularly pressing, because the office we rented shared a stairway with three other units, which had just changed from very low risk, low traffic businesses (a geological survey company and a quantity surveyor) to a domicillary care company with over a hundred staff that were coming and going from the office in and out of elderly and vulnerable people’s homes. As an employer with staff who had various pandemic-related challenges (eg an employee with asthma who had to travel on public transport that included a lot of children on the school run; an employee in a multi-generational household; a vaccine-hesitant employee) and as a person with increased vulnerability myself due to preexisting medical conditions, we were quite proactive in that decision. I closed the office the week before the government officially locked down, and made the decision four months later to give up renting the office and go to a fully home-based working pattern until the pandemic risks resolved. Whilst that was a big adjustment, and I miss physically getting together with my team, having that social element and bouncing ideas off each other, in a lot of ways it has worked to our advantage. I’ve personally appreciated not having to travel as much, and reducing my carbon footprint, and it has allowed us to deliver projects all over the UK as everyone has become familiar with working remotely over Zoom.

We then secured a £220,000 Innovate Smart Grant to work with local authorities and complete our data set for BERRI. That allowed us to recruit a research team in the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families/UCL, where I also have my Senior Research Fellowships, to help us make sense of the data we collect and publish the validation, factor structure and early findings from BERRI. We have then set up partnership projects with eight local authorities (six in London and two in the north east). We added an Operations Manager and two Assistant Psychologist/Fieldworkers to our team to deliver the project. Working remotely meant we could also provide some light-touch input to placement providers across the UK, so we’ve continued to grow the number of organisations with BERRI subscriptions, and our ability to deliver training and consultancy online. We then secured a £96,000 Resilience grant to mitigate some pandemic related delays in the project, add some clinical staffing, commission an independent social and economic impact evaluation of our work, and use some sessional input from psychology graduates for a project in which we plan to build a wider “ecosystem” of resources around BERRI. Coupled with using the government Kickstart scheme (which subsidised businesses taking on young employees who were claiming Universal Credit) to take on three new members of staff, our team has grown rapidly. We now have input from two other qualified clinical psychologists, a small in-house data analytics team, a post to look at identifying and securing further grant opportunities, and a digital training administrator.

There have been other positive side-effects of the move to remote working. We’ve been able to recruit from a national pool of applicants and become more disability friendly – so our team now includes members from Kent, Cardiff, Somerset, Bradford, London, Buckinghamshire, Birmingham, Essex, Suffolk, Liverpool and the north east, rather than just local colleagues around Derbyshire. So I think we will probably work towards a hybrid model in which we have a small office space we use for meetings and training events, that local staff can choose to use when they want to spend more time with colleagues, which should be ready by the time the latest Omicron wave subsides. As well as continued court expert witness work, training and consultancy, and two new projects with additional local authorities, on the clinical side we are also setting up a second base in north Birmingham, where we plan to run a small neurodevelopmental assessment service. So we have recruited another AP to support that location, bringing our team up from me plus six employees in 2019 to me plus 19 today. We also have a network of placement students, researchers, contractors and sessional workers that mean we have over 40 colleagues in our wider network.

That’s a huge shift, and the rapid growth looks set to continue. We’ve secured two more small grants to develop a digital training platform and a demonstration app version of BERRI, and we’ve just submitted a large grant application to build on our work with with local authorities. The independent social and economic impact evaluation has generated some amazing stories of how BERRI has changed the way that services are able to deliver psychological support to young people in care, and their lives have been positively impacted as a result. Whether it is a young person who was stuck in an inpatient secure bed with a negative prognosis who is now living in the community with aspirations of employment, a carer who is able to be more empathic to a child’s trauma history rather than seeing them as naughty, or a professional who feels more able to do their job effectively, it is amazing and rewarding to hear that my little project to develop an outcome measure for children in care is helping to create these increasing ripples of positive impact. It has also shown a remarkable level of economic impact, with over £108 return to the economy for every £1 invested in our service! My goal to change children’s social care and to find a better way to identify and support children’s psychological needs is no longer just a wild fantasy, but might be something we can actually achieve.

The other positive side-effect for me personally, is that I’m finally paying myself the salary I would be on in the NHS. After having started the company by investing my redundancy pay, a decade of subsidising the project through my court expert witness work, and some months where I drew down money from my own mortgage to pay staff, that is no small milestone! It means we are secure enough financially to firm up the social purpose embedded in the business into a formal social enterprise structure, where the majority of profits are pledged to delivering the social impact goals (which isn’t a hard task, given the vast majority of our turnover has always been spent on research and delivery of clinical psychology services).

So, what are the next steps? We have lots of new developments in the pipeline. The BERRI system itself is constantly being improved in various ways, so the next steps are adding third party reporting (eg if a social worker wants to get a questionnaire filled in by a foster carer, or a psychologist wants to get the school to complete a BERRI about a child they are assessing), putting percentile ranks into the reports for greater granularity, and improving our reporting of data to organisation by adding a dashboard with new data visualisations. We are exploring the potential of a Personal Edition of BERRI for concerned parents to fill in to know how best to support their child. And we are building an “ecosystem” of information sheets and videos to advise parents and carers about common issues.

We have several current research studies:

  1. Meryl, our PhD student, is collecting the community norms for BERRI. So if you are a parent of an adolescent in the UK, or know anyone that is, please use this link: https://uclpsych.eu.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_9um9UfYGd2HX9gW (ethics granted by UCL). We really want as many participants as possible, and you don’t need to be concerned about your child or have any involvement with social care – we just want to hear from as many parents as possible (and if your child has no difficulties it should only take 5-10 minutes to compete). If you don’t have kids yourself, please share the link with others, and post the link to our research facebook page on your social media: https://www.facebook.com/BERRIResearch/
  2. If you live outside of the UK or your child is not aged 11-18 to qualify via the UCL research link, and you want a link to the questionnaire to rate a child or young person aged 5-21, just email earlyaccess@BERRI.org.uk, as I can offer free early access to the system to anyone willing to give us some feedback about your experience.
  3. We wanted a few people to complete a BERRI about their child (of any age) and then to complete a short interview about their experience, an MSc student at NTU undertook this as a research project. Another MSc student on the same course interviewed foster carers about how different life experiences impacted upon children in their care.
  4. We are also going to look at how we incorporate the young person’s voice into BERRI, and recognise signs of progress, strengths and post-traumatic growth.

I’m going to apply for some larger grants to look at scaling up our impact, and we are busy expanding the clinical side of our services to deliver more assessments and consultancy. BERRI has been used to review the use of residential care in some authorities, and to idenfity when children are able to return to family based care (either a foster placement, or to a member of their birth family) and what support is required to make this successful. This has generated significant cost savings for some authorities, so we have been commissioned to provide a similar review for a new authority. We are also supporting the growth of in-house residential provision in a couple of authorities, and expanding our clinical services to support fostering and edge of care consultancy in others.

So the future seems full of opportunity to make impact and – provided I can keep up with demand and keep all the plates spinning – maybe that boulder I’ve been pushing up the hill will start to roll. I just need to work out where we want it to get to!

Coping in a time of coronavirus

Are you finding it hard to adjust to the impact of Coronavirus policies on daily life? If so, you are not alone.

If you aren’t too saturated with top tips for wellbeing type posts, I thought I should share a little bit of basic advice compiled from my knowledge as a clinical psychologist and what I have read on science twitter, in case others are also struggling with the impact of social distancing and experiencing changes to their daily life that are causing high levels of anxiety.

Note: This blog is mainly targeted at those people who are staying at home and trying to comply with social distancing, rather than those of you who are doing the kind of essential work that has to continue to involve direct contact with others. If you are in that group, I’m incredibly grateful to you, but I don’t feel skilled enough to provide specific advice. If you have greater knowledge than me and would like to improve this blog (particularly in terms of the physical elements, which I appreciate will change as the situation and our knowledge base evolves) please let me know and I can fix things.

So, with that said, on with the blog.

It is a worrying time for many people, and there is a real threat that we have very little control over, and a lot of misinformation on social media. However, there are things that we can do, and you are not alone – we are all facing this together. So this is my very simple advice of where to start to ground yourself and remain as psychologically healthy as possible in these challenging times.

First the physical health stuff:

1) Do everything you can to remain safe and protect those around you. First and foremost: Get your vaccination when it is offered. Don’t be put off by scare stories about side effects, as a day or two of aches in your arm or a few hours of flu-like symptoms are a small price to pay to reduce the risks of a deadly disease. Staying safe also means following the latest guidance about lockdowns, masks and social distancing. This applies even after you have had your jab! It is still possible to get covid after you have been immunised, and whilst it is much more likely to be symptomless or very mild, you can still be part of the chain of transmission to others, especially with more contagious variants like the delta strain.

So what do we need to do? The government have put a focus on hand washing with soap for 20 seconds (make sure to wash between fingers, around thumbs and wrists and under fingernails if you have had any contact with someone who may be contagious), and remind us to cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow rather than onto your hands. There has also been a focus on cleaning surfaces – however the evidence of fomite transmission (droplets on surfaces) has been minimal, whilst the evidence for aerosols (tiny particles exhaled by an infected person that are airborne for several hours and accumulate in enclosed spaces) has become overwhelming. Thus the key prevention strategies are to wear a mask when entering shops or public indoor spaces, and to follow the rules about physical distancing. This means not greeting people with handshakes, hugs or kisses and standing or sitting further away from them than we would previously have done. Minimise your face-to-face social interactions with people outside your household bubble, and try to ensure you only interact with larger groups of people in a safe way – ideally outdoors or in a well-ventilated space. Unless you work in an essential role this means avoiding crowded events and places, not meeting up in large groups, and trying to remain 6 feet away from others, especially anyone outside of your minimum necessary network. Wear a well-fitted mask in any enclosed space apart from your home – try not to put it on and take it off more than you have to, and avoid touching the mask except by the strings.

2) Be aware that Covid-19 is potentially dangerous, so it is really worth preventing contagion if possible. Even if you are not concerned about the impact of covid on yourself, each of us interacts with people who are older or clinically vulnerable – whether that is elderly parents or grandparents, people with chronic or acute medical conditions (eg cancer, heart disease, diabetes, immune disorders, physical or learning disability, obesity, asthma) whether we are aware of them or not. People we know might also be carers for individuals with these clinical vulnerabilities. In fact 3.7 million people in the UK are regarded as clinically extremely vulnerable, and many of them remain very anxious about the risk of catching covid, even if immunised, despite the fact that the official advice to shield has been lifted.

Covid is worth avoiding as even if you are not in a vulnerable group you can pass it on to others, plus – even within the group that are considered to have had only mild symptoms – it makes some people feel like a very bad flu with aches and serious chest pain/breathing problems, and can lead to weeks or even months of tiredness or recurrent symptoms in some people known as “long covid”. However, for many/most people it may not be obvious that you are ill at all, let alone with a serious condition.

If you test positive, or if you have a dry cough or fever, or if you lose your sense of smell or taste, or if you feel suddenly exhausted/weak, you need to get rested and to self-isolate to prevent spread of the virus. You must also minimise risk of transmission until you have been tested if you have had contact with someone else who has subsequently tested positive for covid, to break the chain of transmission. If you have school aged children you will be asked to complete lateral flow tests twice a week, but be aware these are not as reliable as other tests and can lead to both false positives and false negatives.

3) Take extra care over social distancing if you have an existing health condition or are elderly, or if this applies to anyone else in your household or if you are interacting with or providing services to someone vulnerable (as well as older age this could include more serious medical conditions like cancer, but also ones that are not normally seen as a big impairment to daily life like asthma, heart disease or obesity, particularly in combination). Ensure you have enough medication, and keep taking preventers if you are asthmatic. If you are in a high risk category and there is a high level of prevalence in your area, then where possible have deliveries dropped off without interpersonal contact. If you need to interact with others or use shared facilities, wash your hands and surfaces that others touch frequently (eg door handles, railings, keypads, taps, etc) with soap or sanitiser regularly and wash your hands after using them.

4) Remember that viral load may be important in how severely people experience the virus, and ensure that you take precautions when caring for a dependent with possible coronavirus, or if you think you have it, even if the symptoms are mild. A mask is particularly important in this situation, along with good ventilation, careful handwashing and ensuring you avoid physical contact, which can be challenging with a loved one or small child. Anyone ill or who knows they have been exposed to someone who definitely had Covid-19 should stay separate from the rest of the family as much as possible. This needs to be for at least 7 days after testing positive if you have had no symptoms, or for 7 days after you stop having symptoms. Where someone is ill but needs care use PPE such as a well fitted mask and disposable gloves, use as much ventilation as possible, and keep washing your hands.

5) Although the government are telling us to act as if covid is no longer a problem, we don’t know if there will be additional waves of new variants of covid, or whether future variants will break through the protection offered by immunisations. Covid is also still causing preventable deaths and lasting health impacts for large numbers of people, as well as causing large numbers of people (including health and care staff) to self-isolate. Combined with the impact of Brexit and chronic underfunding the NHS is creaking at the seams. We need to ensure that the NHS can catch up with the level of need for other conditions, and is ready to cope with an increase in demand if required.

Politicians and NHS managers need to act to grow the capacity of the NHS by addressing the funding and recruitment issues. However, each of us can play our part by reducing our risk of spreading the virus or adding to NHS demands in other ways. This means we should aim to slow the spread of coronavirus (by getting immunised and using sensible precautions) so that the rate of people requiring hospital treatment doesn’t exceed NHS resources, and lower the baseline demand for NHS services. We can do this by avoiding preventable reasons for requiring hospital care. This means taking care of your physical health and existing health conditions (eg taking preventative medication/inhalers, following dietary advice for diabetes or high blood pressure), being mindful to reduce risk of accidents (eg drive slowly in built up areas, be extra cautious to avoid falls and injuries) and improving your respiratory and cardiovascular health (eg give up smoking, increase exercise, eat healthily, and attempt to lose weight if you are obese).

But importantly you need to care for your psychological health too.

6) Connect with loved ones (physically if you are in the same household and nobody has symptoms, but virtually or with social distancing precautions otherwise) so that you do not feel alone. Hug your kids or your partner if you are together, or speak to them as frequently as possible if you are apart, and listen to how they are feeling. Check in with people who might be isolated and with those who have been bereaved or have had serious ill-health, traumatic experiences, or have lasting symptoms from covid. Keep in touch with your relatives and usual network via phone, social media, email or video chat. Make the effort to speak to your colleagues even if you are all working from home, keep in contact with your friends even if you can’t gather in person. Confide in the people that you trust.

7) Acknowledge that what we are going through is tough, even if you feel lucky not to be having to deal with it face on like those working in health and social care or doing supply chain or deliveries. Trust your own gut about what level of potential exposure to the virus you feel comfortable with, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad if you don’t want to go back to face-to-face work or social events. Change is challenging, the perceived threat is intangible and unknown, so it is hard to reason with the anxiety it provokes, and uncertainty is stressful. The changes imposed on us to manage the outbreak take away some of our comforting routines and our expectations of the immediate future, and it is normal to worry about the impact on ourselves and loved ones. It is absolutely normal to feel shock, denial, anger, fear, grief, or a mixture of feelings and for these feelings to ebb and flow or change unpredictably (think about the Kubler-Ross stages of grief). You might find yourself literally shaking and/or crying at the idea of having to do something you don’t feel ready for, or you might feel nothing at all. Be kind to yourself, and give yourself time to adjust.

8) Manage your own anxiety. First and foremost, breathe (there are some good little graphics and apps about). Then make sure that you take care of yourself by doing all the basic things that we need; eat, sleep, exercise. Try to avoid increased use of alcohol or drugs, including smoking. Give yourself a routine. Confide your feelings in those you trust, or seek out support if you need it. Join in online mindfulness or therapy groups, or – if the anxiety is becoming a problem for you – seek out personal therapy from a suitably qualified professional. If you have a garden or safe outside space, get out there and appreciate the elements. If you don’t, try to sit near a window and let some fresh air in as often as possible, and leave the window open when the weather isn’t too cold. Exercise and relaxation are both important. The former can burn off negative neurochemicals and produce more positive ones, and the latter can help you to soothe yourself (so indulge in a long bath, or listen to a relaxation video). Likewise sex (or masturbation) is good for our neurochemistry, can maintain intimacy in a relationship through a stressful period and/or help you to sleep.

9) Limit news consumption and stick to reliable sources. If you are feeling anxious you might want to learn everything about Covid-19, but whilst this can bring some temporary relief, too much focus on the potential threat can be counterproductive and increase your anxiety. So try to limit how much time you spend on news sites or social media, and ensure that you check the sources of what you do read as there are many seemingly plausible articles and posts that are not true doing the rounds. The BBC, World Health Organisation, official government sources or a trusted newspaper (for me that means the Guardian or the Independent) are probably more trustworthy than celebrities, social media influencers or some politicians. Don’t get your information about the outbreak from social media unless you have personal connections with medical/epidemiology experts and are very skilled at evaluating the quality of the sources and understanding the limitations to individual studies. If covid content makes you anxious but you like connecting over social media, you might wish to use your preferences to tune out posts using terms like “pandemic”, “coronavirus” and “covid”, so that you can focus on more positive content.

10) Keep busy. Give yourself small goals and structure your time into small chunks, rewarding yourself for small achievements. Be mindful about what you are doing, and give it your full attention. Don’t let yourself ruminate, or slouch about in your pajamas all day. If possible, make sure that you sleep when it is dark and are awake for natural daylight. Stick to routines of mealtimes and maintain as many of your normal activities as possible. If you are unable to work or have less work to do, see this as an opportunity to do things you wouldn’t otherwise have time for. Try to find enjoyable activities or those that keep your mind occupied, whether that is arts/crafts, reading, gaming, sorting/tidying, decorating, programming, writing, making or listening to music, watching films/telly or learning something new (there are loads of fab free courses online).

11) Turn your focus towards the practical things you can do. For me that means trying to increase my cardiovascular fitness and lose some weight, because my pre-existing conditions mean I’m at greater risk, and my lack of fitness compounds this – so I’ve been trying to run up and down the stairs first and last thing each day, and each time I feel particularly anxious. This gives me a sense of doing something positive and it can be rewarding to see yourself making progress. You can choose an activity that suits your starting level of fitness, get out and walk or cycle or there are fantastic exercise videos of all sorts on youtube, so why not try some zumba or yoga or calisthenics. Or improve your living environment, or create or improve a garden or vegetable bed. These kinds of things will give you a tangible feeling of achievement and improve your quality of life.

12) Be kind to others. Manage your anxieties before you speak to children, answer any questions they might have and help them to feel safe and loved. Try to be kind and patient if children are off school, and don’t put too much pressure on them to do academic work until they are in a calm enough emotional state to do so. Listen to loved ones and empathise with their experiences, even if they feel differently or are responding in a different way to you. If there is a spate of panic-buying (whether of toilet rolls, fuel or fresh produce) try not to buy more than you need, so that others can get some of key items too. Thank delivery workers, supermarket staff, carers and other essential workers, and don’t pass on frustrations about lack of stock or delayed/cancelled deliveries to them as they are doing their best. Reach out and make connections to those who might be lonely. If you are young and healthy try to be particularly considerate towards those who are not – keeping in touch with older relatives and friends or those with disabilities and/or health conditions whilst keeping them away from contagions. Join neighbourhood networks or the NHS volunteers list. Leave a note with contact details for vulnerable neighbours in case they need help with shopping or collecting prescriptions, or someone they can speak to on the phone or through the window if they feel isolated. Donate to food banks and local charities if you can afford to do so. Shop with smaller companies and local traders where possible.

13) Take time to be grateful for what we have. If you have people who love and care about you, appreciate them. If you have pets that share your life, pamper them. If you can access nature, take time to enjoy that. If you have had the opportunity of education and can continue to learn, value that. Remember that we live lives of relative plenty. Most of us have relatively secure places to live in locations with relatively good health services to fall back on if we need them. Many of us have meaningful work to be involved in, and live in developed nations with some form of social security to fall back on and/or within networks that would support us in a crisis. So although there are greater challenges in our daily lives due to the pandemic (or Brexit and an inept/corrupt government), we still have a lot to feel grateful for. Focusing on the positives helps you put the challenges into perspective.

14) Know that we’ll solve this in time. So many brilliant people are working together to address this new disease. Health care professionals are doing brilliant work all around the world. Scientists are hard at work exploring faster and more effective tests and treatments. New drugs are being developed at a faster pace than ever before, and well-established medicines have been found with positive effects on disease severity/duration. Uptake for immunisations has been good enough to massively reduce mortality. We have tests to show who is contagious. Immunised people (and those who have had covid) are less likely to be a vector for transmission, so rates of infection are likely to fall over time. Air filtration devices are being tailored to removing the aerosols that increase risk of transmission in indoor spaces. Advances are being made all the time.

15) We all know the death rates and current numbers of people infected. The negative stories are spread far and wide, but some good things will come out of this too. Pollution has been reduced by the decreased travel and factory activity, saving lives of vulnerable people, especially in the developing world, as well as helping the environment. Reduced car journeys might mean reductions in accidents. Political recognition of changing public perceptions should lead to greater investment in health and social care, as well as increased funding for medical research and response-readiness for the future. The pandemic has also shown that all nations face the same threats, and all people are the same, so (with the exception of some racist idiots) it has increased international cooperation and the knowledge that we are all interconnected. This has the potential to allow greater collaboration on international issues in future. Mass working from home has shown that it is possible for more people to work remotely, meaning there are likely to be reductions in travel and more adjustments for people who need it available in the future. It has also highlighted the value of essential workers in supply chains and delivery as well as in health and social care, raising their status and priority in public perception. The economic impacts have shown the value of universal health coverage, social safety nets, and minimum income guarantees. It has reduced the mindless consumerism of recent years, and made us conserve resources and reduce food waste. So hopefully we will come out the other side having learnt some important lessons and can genuinely build back better (and not just use this as a vacuous slogan to cover for government inaction).

Grand ideas

I recently filled in an application to speak at an event about children in Care. The form asked me to summarise in a limited number of characters what I would bring to the table as a speaker. I wrote:

We have collected BERRI data on the psychological needs of over a thousand children in residential children’s homes over the last five years, and surveyed and trained over a thousand residential care staff to provide care that is tailored to those needs. We can present what this data shows us, and how we have used it to improve the services that are offered, and commissioning decisions made about children. For example, we have learnt that the level of challenge presented varies remarkably little by age or gender, though the types of needs are slightly different. Some types of needs (eg behaviour, risk) are affected much more by proximal stressors (eg exclusions from school, gang involvement, substance misuse, sexual exploitation) whilst others (eg relationships) are affected more by historic adversity and the nature of early attachment experiences. We can present how staff variables (demographic factors, burnout, empathy, ability to formulate) affect the care they deliver, and how the price and types of services commissioned relate to the needs of the child and the impact they make on the life of the child – if at all!

The government spend a billion pounds a year on these 7000 children, and we have good evidence that by better targeting the psychological needs of individual children they can improve outcomes whilst saving costs.

It struck me when I looked at that paragraph that this was simultaneously a grandiose claim and underselling the potential of the systems we have developed*. I think that tension between over and under-selling what we can do reflects one of the big challenges of being an entrepreneur – seeing the potential, whilst being realistic about the frustratingly slow steps it takes to achieve it. I can see so much that we can achieve, and the way that collecting the right data can help put children’s needs in the heart of commissioning decisions, improving outcomes whilst saving substantial amounts of money but it is very hard to get this information in front of the right people. I’ve tried to speak to politicians, policy makers, experts in the field, commissioners, clinicians, funders and the media. I’ve spoken at conferences, written a book, contributed to policy documents, delivered service improvement programmes in major providers in the sector, I’ve even given evidence before a select committee. But because I try to answer the questions that are asked, I don’t always get the chance to promote the products and services that we provide. And it isn’t my personality to aggressively sell what we do.

Looking back, I think that I believed that if you work out a better way to do something, a technique that saves time or money or improves outcomes for people, then once people knew about it then it would start to gain traction until it became the established way of doing things. I figured that was how we had progressed from horse-drawn carts to steam engines, cars and now electric vehicles, or from papyrus to paper to typewriters to computers to the plethora of voice-activated, photo-capturing, text and graphic app laden smartphones – finding iteratively better ways to solve problems. I knew that sometimes there were two simultaneous steps forward that competed (like VHS and Betamax) and that variables like marketing, networks and budget could influence the choice, but I generally thought that the best solutions would win through. Maybe it is my left-leaning political bias or my hippy upbringing, but I think in my heart I have held onto a naive idea of fairness in which everyone should be motivated to solve social problems, and people should be rewarded for their effort and insight.

I suppose the concept that we live in something of a meritocracy is quite a widespread belief, and entrenched in western cultures, that good ideas will surface and the best people will rise to positions of power. That’s taken a bit of a crushing for me over recent years, as I’ve seen the covert influence of the super-rich and we’ve had several prominent examples of terrible people rising to the top of systems that have failed to keep up with social and technological change, but somehow I am still hoping for the system to right itself, because it feels like society should be a functional meritocracy.

I think it is particularly well articulated in the USA, because they started as a nation of immigrants who created their own society. To quote the American Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal”, are entitled to “the pursuit of happiness” and will rise to their natural position in society. That sounds like a fair way to run a country, but of course the reality has never quite matched the headlines, given the theft of land and resources from native peoples, the decimation of the natural environment and the evils of the slave trade. But somehow the myth of the American Dream has persisted. First described by James Truslow Adams in 1931, it describes a culture where anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. The American Dream is achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work, rather than by chance or the privilege of your pre-existing connections. In Adams’ words it is:

a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position

Whilst I can see so many places where people are not starting the race from the same starting line, because of geography, race, gender, religion, socio-economic adversity, sexuality, age, or so many other variables I have clung on to my optimism that if you can work out a solution to a big social problem, or have an idea that can really work to make life easier (and/or make lots of money), then it should be possible to gain traction with it, get key people to support you, and get it to happen. The reality is that so many people who think of themselves as examples of a working meritocracy have in fact been handed a huge head start by their privilege. As we joked the other day on Twitter, all the wrong people have imposter syndrome because it is mutually exclusive with entitlement. It seems that private schools in particular train people to expect to be leaders and wielders of power, as we see in the preponderance of Prime Ministers educated in Eton (and in the irritating arrogance of Lottie Lion and Ryan-Mark in the recent series of the Apprentice). Having attended an ordinary comprehensive, and never having been aware of any negative repercussions of my gender or heritage, it has been quite eye-opening to see that maybe the playing field isn’t as level as it appears, even for someone ostensibly white and middle class**.

One figure that has stayed with me is that of all the money invested into fledgling businesses in the UK, 89% is given to all male founder groups, 10% to founder groups containing men and women, and just 1% to all female founders. I couldn’t find any UK numbers, but the figures look even worse if we consider race, with black women only receiving 0.0006% of the of the $424.7 billion that has been invested into startups globally between 2009 and 2017 by venture capitalists. Those white men probably think they simply have better ideas, but the evidence doesn’t support that, whilst the statistics say they are 89 times more likely to be funded than all female groups, whilst a white male entrepreneur is thousands of times more likely to be funded than a black woman, and will have the confidence to ask for much larger sums of money. Only 34 black women have raised more than a million dollars of investment in the last decade. This doesn’t reflect the quality of the idea or the work ethic of the individuals involved (as meaningfully empowered women on boards increase corporate social responsibility and may have a positive impact on the profitability of the business, and diversity increases profitability). It reflects the stereotype of what the (predominantly white male) funders think successful entrepreneurs look like – and they imagine young geeks from silicon valley who are predominantly white and almost always male. And that sucks.

It might also explain why men in suits with glossy patter are able to sell systems they have pulled out of the air for eight times what we charge for properly evidenced tools that do the same job better. Or maybe that’s just a coincidence. But whether or not the playing field is flat isn’t something I can solve alone, and it is unlikely to be resolved within the timescale that is critical for me to make a success of my business and to maximise the impact I can make on the lives of vulnerable children. That means that, despite how discouraging it is to realise that we are not living in a meritocracy where the strength of the idea is enough to sell it to those who matter, I need to find ways to shout louder, communicate what we do better, and get our message in front of the right people.

Because we are tantalisingly close to having all the data we need to understand the critical variables at play in the psychological wellbeing of children and young people in Care, and which placements and services can help to address them. We have an exciting partnership growing with a group of local authority commissioners that will couple our data with commissioning data, and we are applying for grants to help us to gather and analyse that data across much wider samples. We are also scaling up the previous project we did looking at whether BERRI can help to identify suitable candidates to “step down” from high tariff residential settings into family placements with individualised packages of support. These larger scale projects mean that we will be able to show that the model works, at both the human and financial levels. And with a little bit more momentum we can start making the difference I know we are capable of. The trick is hanging onto the vision of what is possible and celebrating what we have already achieved, whilst having the realism to put in the graft that will get us there. I need to keep pushing upwards for longer than I ever imagined, in the hope of reaching the fabled sunlight of easier progress – even if so many variables skew us away from the meritocracy that I imagined.

 

*I think that’s why I used the pronoun “we” and shared credit with my team, even when I was asked to describe myself as a speaker, rather than taking full credit on my own. This transpires to be a common female trait, and part of the double bind for women where being assertive is seen as aggressive whilst being collaborative is seen as lacking leadership. In fact, many words are used exclusively towards women and highlight how pervasive these biases about women in leadership roles are.

**albeit a second generation immigrant to the UK, with Jewish heritage

Heart and Head

It is an interesting fact that most people make decisions based on their emotional “gut feeling” but then justify them logically in retrospect. So you pick a house or a car that feels right, but tell people you chose it because of the miles per gallon or the lovely neighbourhood. Maya Angelou put it rather perfectly when she said

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

However, if you ask me why I think BERRI can benefit a placement provider or a local authority, then my first port of call is facts and explanation, rather than finding the emotional hook that will persuade people that it feels like the right thing to do. Maybe its the scientist-practitioner thing showing through, but I feel like it is more valid or legitimate to make the case in the language of logic and facts, than to try to pull on people’s heart strings, and I am very loathe to make any claims I can’t prove with quantitative evidence.

I think that is partly because of my personal style. I have previously blogged about how I am not a typical clinical psychologist in terms of not seeing myself as primarily a therapist. I wonder whether that is because I tend to start with a more intellectual approach, and address the language of emotions less than many people in my profession. For example, I like to operationalise how I conduct assessments, or the information I like to share in consultations, so that it can be replicated more easily, and to evaluate everything I deliver to check that it is effective. It doesn’t mean I’m not mindful of feelings that arise for people I interact with, or in myself, or that I’m emotionally closed off. In fact, quite the opposite, as I quite often find myself becoming tearful when discussing the stories of the children and families that I’ve worked with (or when reading the news or discussing the current political situation, and even when watching films or reading novels for that matter). I’m likewise prone to a giggle or a belly laugh, sometimes about entirely inappropriate things. I’d say I’m pretty comfortable expressing both positive and negative feelings, and responding to those in others. But when communicating information to others, particularly in writing or as a presentation, science is my starting point.

Maybe it comes from eight years of academic study and writing before I qualified as a clinical psychologist, or maybe it is because I am used to presenting to my professional peers through journal articles and conference presentations. But ask me to explain about a topic or project and my first instinct is to tell a summary of the context and then share my methods, results and conclusions. However, I am mindful that to be an effective salesperson I need to be able to pick out the message that will be emotionally resonant with the listener to focus on, and to capture hearts as well as heads.

To that end, I’ve been working on how we communicate the impact of BERRI on individual children, as well as its benefits for organisations and commissioners. To do this we have started to capture some stories from cases where BERRI has made a difference, and then to anonymise these enough to present them in the materials that I present at conferences and on social media. I had always thought that the lovely animation that Midlands Psychology commissioned to show how they had changed the autism service was a brilliant example of this. I felt like they managed to tell the important elements of their story in an engaging way, and that this couldn’t help but make people see the improvements they had achieved. We didn’t have their budget, but I wanted to capture something similar in our case study animations.

Luckily for me, I had recently reconnected with an old school friend, Joe Jones, who is brilliant at this kind of thing. His “explanimations” for the renewable energy sector had been great at simplifying complex ideas, and he knew all about my business, as he had been helping us to look at our comms. We talked about what I wanted from an animation, the tone we wanted to convey, and the stories that we could tell about different case examples. Joe showed me how The Girl Effect had been able to capture an emotionally compelling story in very simple graphics, where the character created represented every girl, because she was effectively anonymous and culture free.

The result is a short animation that I think captures what we are trying to achieve with BERRI. Obviously, there is more information that will set the simple story into context, which I can tell people in the rest of my presentation, or as they enquire. But as a hook that helps people to see the impact it can make, I think he has done a great job.

BERRI Case Study – Daniel from Joe Jones, Archipelago.co.uk on Vimeo.

What do you think? Does it explain what we are offering? Does it appeal to both heart and head?

Can you make things better for children and young people in Care whilst saving money?

That seems to be the critical question in an age in which there is no money in the budget to try anything innovative just because it will create improvement. To be able to try anything new that involves spending any money we have to evidence that double win of also saving costs. A few years ago when I was in the NHS, I found that really frustrating – I had so many ideas about how we could do things better by creating new services or better collaborations with other agencies, or reaching out to do the proactive and preventative work that would save money down the line, but it was almost impossible to get them off the ground because the budgets were so tight. Since then I’ve tried various things to unlock the spend-to-save deadlock, but it was only once we started looking at the economic impacts of some projects using BERRI that we had clear evidence that we could save money whilst making services better, and on a fairly substantial scale. Our pilot in Bracknell Forest saved £474,000 in the first 12 months whilst making services better and improving the outcomes for the young people involved. And that was just a small scale pilot within a single local authority.

After so many years of being told that improving outcomes whilst saving costs would be impossible it sounds unlikely, but it is true. We made life better for the children involved – in some cases in ways that entirely changed the trajectory of their lives – whilst reducing costs for the local authority. The savings generated would be enough to fund services to address the mental health needs of all Looked After Children whilst still lowering the overall cost of Care. I’m not prone to hype, but that feels pretty extraordinary! Importantly we did it whilst also making life easier for the carers, professionals and placement providers involved. So it is no great surprise that we are now working with many Local Authorities to scope out and deliver wider scale projects.

So, what are we doing that is different? And where do the savings come from? Using BERRI we are identifying psychological needs effectively, and then addressing them early. For some young people that leads to significant change in their behaviour, risks or mental health, that then opens the door to different placement options, and for a small proportion of children the placement costs are substantially reduced. I’m not talking about forcing children in residential care to move to foster placements for financial reasons. I’m talking about better identifying the types of placements and services that young people need. For some, that will mean that they get to access residential care without having to break down a long series of foster placements to do so. For others it will mean that they get access to much increased mental health input, or specialist services. For many it will mean helping their carers to better understand their needs so they can make minor adjustments to the day to day care. But for some children it can open (or reopen) the doors to a family placement.

It may also have an impact on their longer-term trajectory, as it is well known that addressing mental health needs in childhood is easier and more cost effective than trying to address the difficulties they go on to develop in adulthood if these needs are not addressed. Using the BERRI helps carers to see behind the presenting behaviours and to recognise emotional, relational or attachment needs, or feel empowered to support these more empathically. Importantly, it can evidence the impact of the great work that many carers and organisations are doing already to support children by showing the changes they are making over time. It can help to set goals to work on, and to monitor what is and isn’t working effectively to create positive change. BERRI also helps to pick up learning difficulties, neurodevelopmental difficulties and disorders, so that children can then be more thoroughly assessed and care and education can be pitched appropriately.

We are also learning from our increasing data set what scores are typical in different settings, how individual children compare to the general population, and which variables are important in preventing negative outcomes in adulthood.

I sometimes use the metaphor of the cervical cancer screening programme. At a cost of around £500 per woman each 3-5 years, the screening programme prevents 2000 deaths per year. About 5% of women screened have abnormal cells, and 1-2% have the type of changes that are treated to reduce risk. As a result women who are screened are 70% less likely to get cervical cancer, which has an enormous human cost, but also costs £30,000+ to treat. Screening has saved the NHS £40 million. Most importantly it has led to the discovery that the human papillomavirus is significant in the development of cervical cancer. This has led to preventative treatment programmes with 10 million girls in the UK receiving the HPV vaccination. This has reduced the rates of cervical cancer (with 71% less women having pre-cancerous cervical disease), as well as preventing genital warts (by 91% in immunised age groups). It also has the potential to reduce other forms of cancer, as HPV is responsible for 63% of penile, 91% of anal, and 72% of oropharyngeal cancers, with this and the importance of herd immunity leading to the decision to immunise boys as well as girls in many countries.

I would argue that the case for psychological screening, particularly in population groups that have experience trauma, abuse or neglect, is even stronger. More than half of children in Care have a diagnosable mental health condition, and half of the remainder have significant mental health need that doesn’t reach diagnostic thresholds or doesn’t fit into a diagnostic category. They also go on to higher risks of a range of negative outcomes than the general population, including having a higher risk of heart disease, cancer, strokes, fractures and numerous other health conditions, as well as more than fifty times higher risk of homeless, addiction, imprisonment, requiring inpatient mental health care, or having their own children removed into Care. Like cancer, these have an enormous human cost on the individual and their network, and they also have a huge financial cost for the public purse (some estimates suggest £2-3 million per young person leaving Care, when including lower contributions to tax, increased benefits and the cost of services). If we can understand and address the issues that lead some young people down these more negative paths, and address those needs as early as possible in their lives, hopefully we can increase the proportion of young people who survive difficult early lives and go on to healthy happy adult lives.

If you want to learn more about BERRI and the impact it can have on your services feel free to get in touch. Or you can come and learn more about the pilot in Bracknell Forest and the larger scale projects we have started to expand on it, as I am presenting at the NCCTC next month with Matt Utley from the West London Alliance.

How not to apply for a job in psychology

I’ve been shortlisting for a new post today, as we’ve already received 43 applications for the advert I put up yesterday morning*. For a profession in which there is a narrative that prestigious Assistant Psychologist posts are almost impossible to get, the quality of applications is surprisingly poor. I don’t mean that the applicants themselves are surprisingly poor, as they seem to generally be alright, but the way they have applied for the post is, for far too large a proportion of those applying, pretty disappointing. It isn’t going to affect the outcome of the process, as there are some really good applications so we won’t have any trouble finding enough to interview, but there are far too many people who rule themselves out of the running unnecessarily. Many of these applicants might be quite good, but their applications fall far short of my shortlisting criteria for really obvious and easily avoidable reasons. That means that for people who do follow a few simple tricks** you greatly increase your chance of successful applications – not just in my post, but in any application within the field of psychology, and probably most of the advice will generalise to other job applications too.

Before you think that I’m a control freak with unreasonable expectations of applicants, please remember that the context is that 70+ candidates will apply for my vacancy before I close it, and NHS posts will typically attract 100-200 applicants within a short period of time, leading some to close in just a few hours. The balance of supply and demand here means that it’s a shortlister’s marketplace, and only the best applications from the best applicants will lead to an interview. That means that qualified CPs selecting for AP posts have to set high standards to let them narrow down the number of applicants quickly to a manageable amount that they can then shortlist in more detail. And having spoken to many other people who have been responsible for shortlisting similar posts and seen the posts on the thread on this topic on the clinpsy forum, my expectations and frustration with candidates who fail to do the simplest things to present their application properly are echoed by many of my peers.

Whilst these posts are particularly competitive and the application process has some sector-specific features, like the nature of GBC, and the relative values given to particular kinds of experience, what I am talking about are basic job seeking skills that should be taught by every career service or recruitment website. Not only that, but if you do a search on clinpsy you will see that the expectations held by people shortlisting for AP posts are clear, and there is a lot of advice available on this topic in the public domain. We are not expecting people to crack some secret code or have access to hidden insider information: Most of the things that would make the difference are things that require common sense and a bit of effort. My main grumble is as simple as people not reading the instructions on how to apply that are given in the job advert and firing off applications that aren’t specific to the post or don’t contain the required information, or that are really badly presented.

When it comes to my current post I’m not even asking anything too onerous. I haven’t set a task or asked anything unusual. I just want candidates to send a short CV and a covering letter saying how you fit the requirements of the post, with details of two referees. Surely that’s the minimum expectation when applying for a job, and pretty parallel to the NHSjobs expectation of giving education and employment history and then writing the supporting information and references? Yet a significant proportion have submitted applications with no covering letters, no references, or no information about why they want the job or are suited to it. To me that’s like going fishing but not taking a rod or a net.

In terms of essential criteria I’ve asked for a degree conferring GBC at 2:1 or better (or a degree level qualification in statistics or research), along with a driving license (or a transport plan for candidates with a disability to be able to complete the job). Yet many applicants have told me they will complete their undergraduate degree this summer, or don’t have a driving license. There are international applicants who haven’t shown me they can lawfully live and work in the UK. There are then applicants who haven’t given me information I need in order to see they meet my essential requirements. Perhaps they qualified abroad or with joint honours and they haven’t told me that they have GBC. Several haven’t given me a degree grade. Others might tell me that they had a particular job, but not give the hours or the dates so I can’t see how much experience they gained.

The process has really taught me how NOT to apply for a job in psychology, and I thought that might be expertise worth sharing. If you follow the advice I’ve numbered below, you too can be confident that you will maximise your chance to not secure a post!

So my first set of tips on how not to apply for a job are:

  1. Apply for jobs where you don’t meet the essential criteria
  2. Do not read the instructions on how to apply
  3. Do not write a covering letter (or supporting information section) at all
  4. Do not specify your degree grade
  5. Do not mention if you have GBC, even if you have an atypical qualification
  6. Apply from abroad but don’t worry to mention that you have the right to live and work in the UK
  7. Don’t tell me whether posts were full time or part time or the dates when you worked there

The next issue is that many (and in fact probably most) applications don’t tell me why you want this particular job, or how you meet our person specification. They fire off information that tells about their experiences and skills, but does nothing to show how they meet our shortlisting criteria, which are spelled out in the person specification. Few have told me why they want this job in particular as opposed to any job with an AP title or a CP supervisor. Some tell me about their aspirations to gain a training place and/or to have a career in clinical psychology, but (whilst I am aware that the post is a good developmental opportunity and I’m happy to support the successful candidate to develop) I’m not recruiting someone to help them achieve their aspirations. I’m recruiting to get a job done within my team, and their aspirations don’t tell me why they will be better at that job than the other 30+ people who have similar aspirations.

A significant proportion of applications consist of just a CV, perhaps with a very brief generic covering note. Many look like a mass mailing that the candidate sends out to every job listing that contains particular keywords. The result is that they feel like someone reading me a script to try and sell me double glazing or PPI claims without knowing anything about me – they have invested minimum effort but hope that if they apply to enough posts one might bite. In fact, many applications feel like they’ve taken less time to send out than they would take for me to read, and the impression given to the short-lister is that the person doesn’t care about the post at all.

Maybe it’s something about the internet age that people expect to be able to apply for a post with just a couple of clicks, like putting an item on an online store into their basket and then clicking to check out. If you had to invest the effort in phoning up for an application form and then filling it in by hand, as you did when I applied for my AP post in 1995, it might seem more obvious that you needed to make that effort count. But even then not every candidate would explain why they wanted the post. However the internet age also makes it easier to cut and paste the right chunks of information or to edit existing text. So it also makes it easier to tailor an application to a specific post.

So my next set of tips on how not to apply for a post are:

  1. Don’t read the job advert – the job title, pay and location are all the information you need
  2. Fire off a generic CV with no information about why you want the post or how your skills are suited to it (for bonus marks express interest in a different client group or service)
  3. Don’t even worry to read the person specification, that’s not important
  4. Don’t tailor your application to the job, just send the same application out to every post, regardless of the context or population.

The other big advantage is that the internet lets you check spelling and even grammar, so you really don’t need to submit applications that are peppered with typos and spelling mistakes. If you are dyslexic, get someone else to check it before submitting. If you feel too much time pressure to delay individual applications for proofreading then prepare the content you will need to configure most applications in advance so you can get someone to proofread your main blocks of text in advance. Word processing software also lets you count the number of characters, words and pages before you paste content in to your application, so you can easily follow any specified requirements. Which is why it is so puzzling to get six page CVs when I set a limit of two.

There are then other issues with how people present their applications. I get that pasting a CV into a recruitment site can mess with the formating, but you can normally use a preview feature to get the chance to see how it will appear to a recruiter, so it is worth checking. Simplify layouts and fonts and remove massive gaps that appear so that the CV looks neat and tidy. Keep it as short as possible. If I can write my CV on two pages, having worked in psychology for 24 years, managed teams in the NHS and now running my own business, I’m pretty sure that you don’t need six pages by the age of 23. And I’m sorry to break it to you, but I don’t care what your responsibilities were when you worked in that shop, or pub, or holiday resort in the summer before your degree. If you really want to mention it, I’m fairly sure one line would cover it. Otherwise it looks like you can’t prioritise – which is off-putting because being able to pick out the most salient information is an essential skill when deciding what information needs to go into a report.

So my next set of tips on how not to apply for a post are:

  1. Make lots of typos, and ensure to include as many spelling mistakes, punctuation errors and examples of poor grammar as possible (for bonus points, you could spell the name of the organisation or short-lister wrong, or try some text-style abbreviations)
  2. Lay your CV or application out so it is as unintelligible as possible, and definitely don’t check how it will appear in the application system
  3. Don’t worry about any requirements with regard to length, more is always better
  4. Put in lots of information about irrelevant experiences, such as work in retail and hospitality

I hope this blog doesn’t seem like I’m putting people who are just starting out in their psychology career down, or criticising those who have applied in a hurry for fear of the post closing before they have time to submit anything at all. My goal is entirely more positive – to share how simple it can be to make that impossible aspiration of gaining interviews for AP posts come true. There are certain really simple behavioural changes that can remarkably increase your odds of success.

So what can I do to improve my chances of gaining an interview?

First, apply to non-NHS job vacancies. It takes a little more effort to find them, and the quality can be more variable. However, they are a great foot in the door, and much easier to secure than their NHS equivalents as they tend to have lower numbers of applicants and to stay open a bit longer. If an NHS AP post means you have a 1 in 50 chance of an interview, a post outside the NHS might increase your odds to 1 in 15 for a fairly popular post, or even 1 in 3 if the post is only advertised on a company’s website and social media and not on a major recruitment platform. Yup, that one simple trick** can increase your chances by a factor of five!

Second, follow the instructions. Read the advert carefully and do what they tell you to do. If they ask for a two page CV make sure that you send one the right length. A 600 word essay? Well worth the effort, as sending it will double your chance of success compared to applying to a post without this requirement, as fewer other applicants will make the effort, whilst sending an application without it is posting your application straight into the no pile.

Third, tailor every application to show how you meet the person specification for that particular job, and to show you understand and are enthused about what the job will involve. Ideally you need to respond to every point of the person spec in a way that is clear and obvious to the shortlister, and probably in a similar order to that used in the specification. If they want a 2:1 or higher that confers GBC then you need to give your degree grade and specify it confers GBC, rather than assuming that the shortlister will know or be willing to check on Google whether this is the case. If you are applying from abroad or have international qualifications then it is worth stating whether you have the right to live and work in the UK, and explaining the scoring system and/or the UK equivalent of your degree grade.

Fourth, pick your battles. It is better to write fewer applications but to give each one more time so that it is of really good quality and tailored to the particular job than it is to send out hundreds of generic applications. Choose posts that you are enthusiastic about rather than applying to every AP post you see. Think about whether the location can work for you and whether you have relevant experience and/or transferable skills to bring. Make sure every application is up to the highest standards, even if this means they will sometimes close before you submit them***. In such a competitive field it is probably only worth applying for posts where you meet all the essential criteria.

Finally, check your working. Make sure you have spelt names and organisations correctly, and not made any silly typos or cutting and pasting errors. If you can, get someone else to read your text so you can get feedback on how to improve it. Even if that isn’t in time for the application you wrote it for, it will mean you don’t make the same mistakes next time. Preview the application to check the formatting if this is possible.

Then fire it off and cross your fingers!

 

*I’ll be reading more over the coming days too as we normally keep the advert open for a week or 75 applications, whichever comes first. Edited to add: We closed after 5 days and received a total of 86 applications. We invited five people to interview.

**cliche internet phrase

***In this circumstance it is worth sending an email to the appointing officer or point of contact given in the advert explaining what happened and attaching your application. They may consider it anyway, and even if they don’t you risk little by trying.

The elephant in the room: Mental health and children’s social care services

I heard a few months ago that the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee were undertaking an inquiry to look at the funding of local authorities’ children’s services, and thought that sounded like an interesting topic that might relate to my areas of interest. I therefore met with a local MP about the topic, contributed to the BPS response to the inquiry, and (on the request of the committee) submitted my own response in relation to my innovative work with BERRI. I have subsequently been called to give evidence in person to the enquiry in a few weeks time.

Given I’ve been so immersed in this issue it seemed a good topic for a blog. I’m going to start with the evidence that this sector is in crisis, before thinking more about what a clinical psychologist like myself can contribute to addressing elements of this need. Hopefully I can then write another blog in a few weeks time to talk about my experience of giving evidence, and report back about whether the politicians grasp the issues and appear motivated to do something about it.

It didn’t surprise me that this was an issue that the government wished to give more scrutiny, given the steep increase in need in this area over the last decade, whilst funding for local authorities has been substantially reduced by the government’s austerity agenda. Human distress and unmet need rarely seems to gain political attention unless it is in such a crisis that the public are aware of the issues, or it has financial implications for the public purse, and children’s social care has suddenly hit both of those thresholds in the last year or so. 

A number of factors have combined to increase need in children’s services. This includes growing awareness of child abuse and its impact (particularly emotional abuse which has long lagged behind the more tangible forms of abuse), along with reduced stigma in disclosing having been abused (due, for example, to the publicity surrounding the Jimmy Saville scandal, the various institutional abuse enquiries, and the #metoo movement) and a reduced tolerance for forms of abuse that had been normalised or ignored in the past (due to cases like Baby P and the Rotherham child sexual exploitation trials, and subsequent prosecutions in many other areas). A lot of teenagers who had been allowed to remain in unsuitable living circumstances because of the belief that they would “vote with their feet” if removed are now appropriately protected and brought into Care, perhaps because of some precedent setting cases in which people have taken successful legal action against local authorities and have been compensated for failures to protect them in childhood. This includes an enormous legal settlement for two Care leavers from Jersey, who have received tens of millions of pounds compensation.

Children in Care are also entitled to stay in their foster placements up to the age of 21 where they want to and it would be beneficial for them, and to have support after leaving Care from a personal advisor until the age of 25. Another pressure is the reduced use of secure units on welfare grounds, and a reduced willingness to incarcerate children in institutions for recurrent minor offending. The increased stress, shame and social hardship of benefit changes and increases to cost of living has led to move children growing up in poverty, and more families developing the risk factors that can cause harm to children, such as drug or alcohol use, mental health problems, domestic violence and family breakdown. This has had a particularly negative impact in families in lower socioeconomic groups.

It is therefore unsurprising that over the same period of time the demands for social care services have risen steeply. Over the last decade there has been a 9% increase in referrals to social care and numbers of children considered in need, but there has been a 84% rise in child protection cases, and 26% more children are in Care. This creates a lot of additional workload for children’s services, with a 122% increase in demand for section 47 enquiries, and a 125% increase in Care Proceedings (as less children are now informally Accommodated with parental consent). Yet the budgets have shrunk, so there is no resource available to meet this need.

The financial picture is genuinely shocking, and yet it has hardly made the news (perhaps because looking at the numbers is considered too technical or boring for the lay public, and the political and news agenda has been hijacked by the continuing debacle of Brexit). But reviewing the figures makes sobering reading. The cuts to local authorities since 2010 are unprecedented. The National Audit Office highlighted the extent of the shortfall in their report on the financial sustainability of local authorities published last year. They point out that central government spending on social care has halved. This has been masked by changes in how funding is delivered, and some additional funds from council tax being made available to spend locally, but the cuts are still enormous and amount to a real terms reduction of nearly one third of the entire budget for local authorities, but the burden is again being disproportionately felt in more deprived areas.

Such cuts are unrealistic and unsustainable, as they make the total budget too small to cover anything other than statutory services, which are legally protected. This means that councils have no means to make ends meet without dipping into their savings. The report shows that two thirds of local authorities had drawn from their reserves by 2016-17, so there is an ever decreasing amount left in the pot for contingencies, and the audit office predicted that 11% of authorities will empty that pot by the end of this financial year. Councils are having to sell off properties and come up with increasingly radical plans to try to fulfil their minimum duties. Recently Northamptonshire County Council had to declare themselves bankrupt as they had no means to cover statutory services from the available budget.

This mismatch between demand and resourcing has led to enormous cuts to non-statutory services, with two thirds of the spend on preventative and community children’s services disappearing. This means that, as with mental health, there is a minimal set of brief services delivered for milder or less entrenched difficulties, but that there is then an abyss in which no services are available until they reach the threshold for the crisis-focused specialist services – which are expensive and time-consuming to deliver and can’t keep up with demand. The focus has moved from collaborative work to assessments and interventions that are perceived as the end of the line, despite the absence of the precursor interventions that might have enabled change.

To me, the elephant in the room when it comes to children’s social care is mental health need. I don’t just mean the clean single-condition, diagnosable treatable mental health need that gets through the doors to CAMHS. That’s the need up on the sterile concrete plains of mental health research that Prof Miranda Wolpert describes so well. I mean the real messy need down in what Miranda calls the swampy lowlands where real complex people live in varied circumstances, where numerous issues intersect to create barriers in their lives that are not straightforward to address, and do not fall into the simple diagnosis to treatment pathway that currently gets through the doors to CAMHS. That’s the need that determines the outcomes for these children, and the pathway on which they leave Care and try to negotiate adulthood. It is that need which determines whether they can go on to happiness, employment and family life or whether they become one of the Care leavers who end up facing prison, homelessness, mental health problems, addiction, conflict and/or their own children going into Care.

So what are these broader mental health needs? In my experience, a complex and interwoven picture of trauma, adversity, behaviour problems, attachment difficulties, developmental disorders or delay and mental health needs is typical of children in Care or receiving social care services. As well as the traditional “mental health” needs of anxiety and depression I see a much broader picture that is expressed in a variety of ways. Some children act out with their behaviour, others withdraw and show signs of emotional difficulties (including low mood, poor self-esteem, and a lack of positive identity or perception of belonging). They often struggle to form healthy relationships/attachments to others, and can present a risk to themselves and others. They have an increased prevalence of conditions like Learning Disability, Autism, ADHD, or psychosis that add an additional layer of challenge in standard services effectively meeting their needs. That is why my BERRI assessment system attempts to cover all of these areas.

Seen as a group, children who are Looked After have high levels of mental health difficulties (45% have a diagnosable condition, and over two thirds have significant mental health need), so it would be easy to blame the Care system. However, this extraordinary level of need is predominantly caused prior to them coming into Care. It is well established that Adverse Childhood Experiences lead to multiple layers of vulnerability, and these are very prevalent for Looked After Children (my own research suggests an average of 4 historic ACEs per child, along with 2 current vulnerability factors at the point they come into care, such as involvement in gangs, sexual exploitation, school exclusion or the criminal justice system). Looked After Children are in the vast majority traumatised children, who have experienced abuse and/or neglect. But these problems don’t occur in isolation. They are contextually embedded. Children in Care come disproportionately from families that experience the adversities of poverty, crime, family breakdown, and poor housing. They are more likely to be born to parents who have lower education, higher risks of unemployment, and a higher incidence of mental health problems, substance misuse, domestic violence and a history of abuse or neglect in their own childhoods. As a result, their parents are less able to provide safe and stable care. Patterns of difficulty often carry through many generations of the family, and the problems they face are a symptom of our increasing social inequality. 

However, CAMHS are not really set up to meet these complex and interwoven needs, and cut off at 18 years of age, whilst children can stay in care until they are 21 and receive leaving care services until the age of 25. They also have ongoing needs that will need to be revisited over time as they develop or different themes emerge as they enter different life stages or face different challenges. It might be that a dental care model, in which there is long-term oversight but with responsive services as and when they emerge works better than the time-limited episodic care that is currently on offer. Likewise services need to be embedded so that they collaborate with placements and other support services, rather than stand in isolation.

The wider context of the underlying contextual and vulnerability factors mean that treating symptoms or even specific conditions might be an ineffective model of intervention. We need to think back to Maslow’s hierarchy. These children first and foremost need their basic needs met, and to have reliable food, shelter and warmth. They need safety and security, medical care and an environment that doesn’t contain ongoing risks. They need opportunities for identity and belonging, such as education, employment, hobbies, peer relationships, and family. They need intimacy and trust in their friendships, sexual/romantic relationships and relationships with carers. When that is reliably in place they need opportunities for achievement and being valued, so that they can gain self-esteem, confidence, status, responsibility and individuality. The icing on the cake is then self-actualisation, the chance to explore creativity, set goals, reflect on morals and values, and feel purpose and fulfilment. Mental health needs only fit in mid-way up that pyramid. We cannot expect a child to have a positive outlook and good coping strategies and social skills if they are not in a safe environment, don’t have their basic needs met, or cannot trust those around them. To see the point of going along to a therapist takes enough self-esteem to believe you deserve to feel happier, and you then need the organisation and social skills to get there, and the trust to confide your story, or a carer who will advocate for you and help you to achieve these steps. There are many building blocks that need to be put in place by the caregiver and environment before therapeutic interventions are possible, and it may be that when we get these other elements right, the child is able to recover using their own resources and that of their caregivers, without ever seeing a therapist.

My perspective is that if we can help to identify needs of children as early as possible and skill up the caregivers and the systems around the child, we can make the most impact. That is why I have increasingly moved from working with individual children to working with their caregivers and the systems that surround them, and have developed the BERRI system to identify needs and help carers understand them, as well as developing and delivering training to help carers and professionals understand the needs of the children and young people better. It doesn’t have the depth of working psychologically with a single individual, but it has the scope to make impact on a much wider scale, and it fits better with my personal strengths and interests. As I’ve said before, I’m not the most patient therapist to walk a long journey of recovery or personal development with a client, but I do have strengths with assessment and evidence-based practice.

My aims have always been to address human needs. I believe that Clinical Psychology in its simplest form is an attempt to make people happier and more able to lead fulfilling lives, and that is what drew me to this profession. And within that broader mission, my focus is to work with the most vulnerable members of society at the earliest possible point in the lifecycle, which has brought me to working with Looked After Children and the broader population of children and families receiving (or in need of) social care services. Recognising the mismatch between the level of need and the resources available to meet that need has increasingly led me to focus on systemic and population level interventions. Rather than drowning in the burnout that comes with trying to solve an overwhelming problem, I’ve tried to find a niche where my skills can make an impact. Having looked at this population group from multiple perspectives, and tested out projects in various settings, I have become increasingly persuaded that there is scope to make positive changes through the use of better systems to identify need, and increased clinical governance over the choice of placements and interventions. 

I have tried to develop practical, cost-effective ways to make a difference, and to gather evidence of their efficacy. I have then tried to share my findings, and what is already known from research, with the widest and most influential possible audience. That is why I have given so much of my time over to writing best practice papers and contributing to policy. Through these experiences I have gradually learnt to shape the messages I share to make them relevant and understandable to various audiences. After all, whilst most of psychology seems common sense to those of us working in the profession, once you have learnt about the main findings and the methodologies for gathering knowledge, to lay people (and professionals, commissioners and politicians) it might seem very complex and unfamiliar. Over time I have learnt that being able to articulate the financial benefits of improving people’s lives helps to get decision makers on board. So my goal in responding to the enquiry was to explain both the human and financial case for greater psychological input for children receiving social care services. I don’t know how well I have achieved that, but I’d be interested in your thoughts and feedback.

What to do when you can’t do it all

There was an interesting little discussion on the forum this week about the perceived pressure to do everything, and to do it all right now. That fits with the concept of the insecure overachiever that is actively sought out for certain high demand jobs (and was the topic of a recent radio 4 show) and also the concept of Imposter Syndrome, where you constantly feel like a fraud who might be found out and identified as inadequate for the job. There is a widely perpetuated narrative in modern society that people should be willing to work longer and harder, and there is always a mythical person who is doing more than you. Whether that is more revision before exams, or more prep for their clinical application or assessment day, or more voluntary work, or managing to juggle more things in their working week, it always makes you feel a bit guilty and inadequate no matter how much you are doing or how hard you are trying. The truth is we are in a profession where demand for our services will always exceed supply. The early stages of the clinical psychology career path are competitive, and there are lots of people who claim impossible workloads and huge amounts of experience that can make you feel like you’ll never measure up. So how do we tackle this pressure to do more?

There are probably lots of layers to the answer. Some are political, as this culture springs from job insecurity, underfunding, and the focus on attaining wealth and status – so the ideal is to change the game, rather than trying to win a game that is rigged against us. Another layer is to communicate with others and band together, as this undermines our personal insecurities that see it as our own personal failings, and allows us to normalise our experiences and work together to resolve the systemic issues that underlie them. But even at a personal level, there are things that we can do.

So this blog is about my top ten suggestions to tackle that feeling of having too many plates spinning and not enough time, and the cognitive distortions that maintain the belief that we should do more. I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers, or that that I’ve resolved all these issues in my own life. Far from it! I’ve mentioned many times that I’m not a good role model in this regard. I think I am a bit of a workaholic, and whilst other people say I’ve achieved a lot, I always feel like there is more I could/should be doing. However, the things that have started to help me change my own patterns are:

1) Know when you are taking on too much. Having had a minor car accident, the physical repercussions made me cut down my work to a more manageable level. They remain a good reminder if I’m overdoing things, as I get aches and pains in my ear/jaw and shoulder. Obviously, I’d not recommend having an accident as a self-care strategy to others! The bit worth sharing is to be aware of your own physical and mental state, and to learn to recognise your own signs of stress as early as possible. Then you can be responsive to your own needs, and learn to stay within your own limits. It is also a good reminder to ensure that you build self-care and exercise into your routine.

2) Fit in friends and fun. Giving higher priority to the people and things you enjoy and are recharged by. We all need to have support networks, and family and friends need to be given enough time and priority in our lives to perform that role. I can’t persuade myself to “do less work” or to leave gaps in my diary, but I can put in commitments to the people and activities I value in my life that compete with work. I make it a personal rule that I finish work at 4pm on Mondays to take my kids to their swimming lesson and do my 30 lengths. Every evening the 7.00-8.30pm slot is time I always give to my kids’ bedtime routine, and 8.30-10.30pm is time I always spend with my husband. I’m also trying to cook with the kids twice a week, to fit in a creative activity each month and not to work on weekends. My advice is to start small, commit to something for at least a month and then build on good routines once they are established. Once in a while make time for fun or frivolous things like having a spa day, or sneaking out for a cinema or lunch date with my husband, or booking a holiday.

3) Sleep. No matter what else is going on, make sure to get enough sleep. For me that means eight hours per night. I’m a night owl, so I often work until the task is done, even if that means resuming work after everyone else in my house is asleep and working through until the small hours. Then I often have to get up and fulfil work commitments the following day. If I could stop doing those extra bits of work after everyone else is asleep and get a proper sleep routine where I sleep during the hours of darkness and get out into the sunlight more in the daytime, that would have positive knock-on effects on my energy levels, mood, appetite and attention span. You can see from the fact I’m drafting this post at 2am that I’m not managing that yet, but for now allowing myself to have at least one lie-in on the weekend is a lifesaver.

4) Use your time better. Stack commitments together with similar content, that involve particular colleagues or that you can do in particular locations. Get the right kit to do the job efficiently. Travel less. Use video chat rather than meeting in person. Minimise your commute, or use it for something relaxing like reading a novel or listening to music or audiobooks. See if you can work from home even if it is just a small proportion of your time. Work out what the blocks or bottlenecks are in your process, and how you can solve them, For me having templates of common reports and letters was one helpful step. According to where you are in the power structure, you can also look at how you can draw in support or what you can delegate to others.

5) Diarise the in between stuff. Don’t just fill your calendar with the face to face stuff and expect to fit in the admin and support tasks in the cracks, because they either escape into non-work time or don’t get done. If you have to write a report between appointments, give yourself a diary slot to do it in. Need to read the papers before a meeting? Book the hour beforehand for that task. Want to write up a paper? Diarise three days for it. Then make sure that you keep that time for that sole purpose. Book an admin slot at the beginning or end of each day, or a half day at the beginning or end of the week. Check out how much time you need and when you are most productive. If that is a time that is earlier or later than other people work, make sure that you take the time back somewhere else*.

6) Prioritise, then focus on the key tasks. Isolate yourself if you need to get something important or time critical done. Turn off your phone and your email alerts, ideally unplug from the internet, and prevent distractions. Then give it your full attention. Work out what is interrupting you, and then stop it so you can get work completed in one steady sprint, rather than having to come back to it again and again after dealing with phone calls, emails, other people interrupting, or diverting onto the internet. Deal with the quick stuff straight away. But then make yourself a task list and work down it. Prioritise the important stuff over the seemingly urgent but unimportant. Try to check email and messages at the beginning and end of the day, not every few minutes. When you need to get something done turn off social media, email alerts, etc. Turn your phone onto silent and then put it out of sight.

7) Clarify your goals, and how to reach them. Envisage where you are trying to get to, what the steps you need to take are, and what barriers are preventing you getting there. If you wanted to lose weight you could picture yourself thinner and see how it would play out in your life, then think about what you need to do to consume less calories or burn off more. Then see what is stopping you. You could identify that you aren’t getting to the gym if you go home from work first, or that you are always tempted when there is cake in the office, or buy unhealthy snacks when you don’t take a lunch to work. Once you recognise them, you can then make an informed choice, and if the benefits are worth the extra effort you then need to address the barriers. One of my goals is to make my business self-sufficient enough to continue even if I went off long-term sick, and could provide me an income in retirement. So I have been thinking about how to recruit and train others to sustain the business, and create products that can utilise my skills and knowledge without me having to deliver everything in person (eg can I train others to deliver training, deliver it as a webinar, or make videos of the training available to subscribers).

8) Get a better bubble. They say that we are the average of the five people we spend most time with, and whilst that isn’t a scientifically validated concept, I think that it has some merit to it. We are all normed by those we spend most time with, so I’ve actively chosen to seek out the company of people I admire and want to learn from, and who will challenge my assumptions and habits. More specifically, I’ve been trying to spend more time with other social entrepreneurs, rather than the long-term NHS, education and social care professionals I already know, so that I move away from the common assumptions of this kind of work, and can be more creative and less risk averse in how I look to create impact. You also need to enlist the support of the key people in your life so they reinforce your goals, rather than unwittingly draw you back into old habits.

9) Get reflective. Use your supervision, your trusted confidants or keep a journal. If you want to take it one step further, why not seek out therapy, or coaching, or personal development opportunities. Give yourself time to think and regroup, particularly after stressful or emotional experiences. As well as the benefit of some wonderful supervisors, I’ve had various coaches and mentors since I left the NHS, and I’ve attended various groups and training programmes. Each one has helped me understand myself better, and helped me to refine my plans to make them more likely to succeed. It is really good to take time outside the pressure of spinning all the plates to look at why you are spinning them, which are most important, and how they make you feel. It can help you to consider the pros and cons of different options, and to identify goals and actions.

10) Be kind to yourself. Remember that you need to attach your own oxygen mask before you can help others with theirs. Take time out when you need to, and find the things that replenish you. Be realistic about what is possible or what you have capacity for, and learn to say no to unreasonable demands. Don’t be too self-critical. Seek out and remember the positive feedback, and the things you have already achieved. Take the time to note the positives and be grateful.

And above all: Enjoy the journey. There is no rush to get to the destination. Dance whilst the music is playing.

 

*with the agreement of your manager, of course.

Runway: A blog about whether being self-employed or starting a business is a viable option financially

If an aircraft runs out of runway before becoming airborne then it will have to stop or it will potentially crash horribly. For this reason, runway is used as a metaphor for the relationship between the money available in a business and its running costs. If the business does not generate enough income to keep the cashflow up to cover costs, then it will either come to a stop or come to a horrible end. But unlike an airport, where sufficient runway already exists for the purposes of launching planes, with a new business you have to find or create the money that will hopefully let the business become self-sustaining. And unlike an airport, at which planes get up into the air uneventfully every few minutes every day for many years, most businesses fail within the first three years, often because of not being able to generate enough income to sustain the business in the longer term.

I think a lot of people in employment have fantasies about being self-employed or starting their own business. For clinicians, the fantasy is often about offering therapy in private practise to insured or well-heeled clients with milder problems. Whilst the hourly rates for private practise might seem attractive compared to a salary divided down into an hourly rate, the figures represent something really different. Salary is paid on leave days, bank holidays and when you are sick. It covers maternity/paternity leave and redundancy if you are no longer needed. You get supervision, CPD, equipment to use and premises to work in. You also have a team of other professionals supporting you in the background from admin to HR, finance, operational management, procurement and maintenance. You don’t have to think beyond providing the clinical and associated psychological services. Salary packages, particularly from the NHS, also contribute to very favourable life insurance and pension schemes. When you are self-employed you need to think about premises, insurance, supervision, CPD costs, DBS checks, accountancy, advertising, tax and how you will generate income if you don’t or can’t work. You may also need equipment from computers and stationary to psychometric tests (which are enormously expensive both to purchase and for record forms).

Remember that the bills need to be paid immediately, but clients may not pay you as promptly – and some may not pay at all. This is particularly true for me when doing expert witness work where the timelines from accepting the work to receiving payment for it are amazingly extended. If I accepted an instruction in principle on 1st January, I would typically receive instructions for it 1-3 weeks later. My appointments would take place 4-8 weeks after that, and my report would be submitted a fortnight later, perhaps in late March. There might then be further instructions or clarifying questions, before the case is heard at the end of May. Any invoices will only be processed when the case closes in June, and then sent to the Legal Aid Authority for scrutiny in July. If there are no queries the LAA then send payment to the solicitors, who eventually send it on to the expert in the August or September, though some will drag their heels for several more months. So I have to wait six to twelve more months to receive payment. And about 8% of the work is never paid, because the solicitors closes after the Legal Aid claim is made, or because the LAA determined that some of the work wasn’t “reasonable” or because there was a problem somewhere in the line of communication and one of the parties doesn’t claim a share of your invoice. Meanwhile the work is taxable in the financial year in which it is completed, and the VAT is payable at the point the invoice is issued. I also have to pay any staff who contributed at the end of the month in which we did the work.

Even as a sole trader working from home in a service industry with relatively low set-up costs, most of us need to earn some money to cover our living expenses, and can’t go for months or years unpaid. That means that unless you have a massive inheritance or lottery win to draw on, it might not be possible to give up salaried work to take the gamble of trying something independent. My rule of thumb is to have a minimum of three months living expenses saved before you consider leaving salaried employment. You might get this from a redundancy or mutually agreed resignation scheme, or by putting money aside whilst you are planning. You should also compare your current and projected earnings. My way of calculating this to calculate your annual salary plus 25% (the approximate value of the pension and protections) divided by 210 (the actual number of days an average NHS employee turns up to work). You can then compare this to what you think you could earn in a day if you had private clients, a contract with a large company to deliver training or services, a calendar full of supervision or consultancy, or whatever you imagine doing. You really need a multiple of three between the first number and the second to make being self-employed pay equivalently after costs, though if you really hate your job or are prepared to take a reduction in income (at least in the short-term) you might consider a multiple of two. I don’t believe it is viable to go below this because in my experience people never properly account for the amount of expenses involved, or the for the amount of non-income generating time required. As well as the fact that not all of your available slots will be filled until you are well established, it is worth bearing in mind that most full-time clinicians spend about 15-18 hours per week on direct clinical work, and the rest on work tasks that would be non-income generating in the private sector, such as screening referrals, setting up appointments, phone calls, email, supervision, meetings/indirect work, writing letters/reports, other admin and CPD.

That said, money isn’t everything. I know some amazing selfless people who have earned less than minimum wage for many years, but followed their heart because they cared passionately about what they were doing, and the impact it could make in the world. I’m not quite that altruistic, perhaps because I am the main earner for our family unit and feel an obligation to sustain our quality of life, but I’ve had to learn to live on a much less regular income. I pay myself minimum wage then supplement this with lump sums when the business is profitable. To make this even more unpredictable, I have often had to loan money into the business in order to pay salaries when others have been slow to pay us for work we’ve done. Overall I’d say my income is lower than when I worked in the NHS and did some court expert witness work on top, but nowadays on balance it probably matches my consultant grade salary. The amount I earn feels sufficient for our needs – and probably stretches a little further as some expenses have been absorbed (eg my mobile phone bill is paid by the company, as is the cost of any CPD I want, the costs of my accountant, and some little things like a sandwich and soft drink when I’m away from the office on business).

There are also some things that money can’t buy. I’ve loved the freedom and flexibility of being self-employed, even though there have been times that have been quite tough financially. Whilst it initially increased my workaholic tendencies to quite alarming proportions (peaking at working 9.30am to 6.30pm in the office and then 10pm until 2am at home most weekdays, and fitting in 5-10 hours of work per weekend), more recently I’ve been able to achieve more of a work-life balance. I’ve stopped doing as much consultancy and training that involved staying away over night, and reduced the court work that created so many high-pressure deadlines. I’ve started to cluster meetings in London once a month, arranging other meetings over videoconferencing where possible. I’ve withdrawn from the committee and policy work that was taking up a big chunk of my time. I’ve also recognised the wise advice of a past supervisor that said I needed to fill up life outside work with commitments that would compete with work, rather than expecting to ever be the kind of person who can ring-fence free time. So I’ve started putting social appointments in my calendar, made a commitment to swimming regularly, I’m doing more adventurous things with the children, and I’ve even been able to sneak out for the afternoon with my husband from time to time. Running my own business has also given me a chance to relocate to an area that I love, where my qualify of life and working environment is much nicer.

When weighing up the options, bear in mind that working as a sole trader can be quite isolating. In the NHS or other organisations we usually work within teams, often with the benefit of colleagues to bounce ideas off, or who can contribute to formulations from other perspectives. Working with others also allows you to collaborate or to delegate work to people with complementary skills or interests. It shares the risk of complex cases, and means you don’t feel solely responsible for the waiting list or the stuck cases. It can allow you to prioritise work and manage your workload. When you are the only one doing the work this becomes much more difficult, and the pressures and sense of responsibility for clients can increase substantially. Even though the waiting list might be shorter, you might feel more guilty if there is a delay in starting work with a new referral, or more responsible for ensuring a good outcome for everyone. When your income literally depends on how much work you do it can be hard not to end up over-working to the detriment of everything else in your life. However, on the flip side you can feel pride in positive outcomes, and a waiting list becomes a marker of success (that people are willing to wait for you) rather than a mark of failure like it is construed in the NHS (where there is pressure to meet targets, and services don’t have enough resources to keep pace with need, and are the only available option for most people).

You also need to realistically appraise your business plan. Most people go into business in the belief that they have found a niche in which they can earn a profit, and hope that demand for their services or product will arrive as soon as potential customers know it is available. However, that can lead people to be overly optimistic about how fast they can gain traction in the market, or the level of profit they can make. Unless the plan is to seek external investment, most small business owners need for the business to become profitable fairly quickly, and few would be willing to pour their life savings into a new business in the hope of a return further down the line. When trying to start up a company or expand a sole trader enterprise into a business that employs others it can often feel like a Catch 22 situation, that you can’t afford the things you need to generate the income that will fund the things you need. But unlike on Dragon’s Den or in Silicon Valley, few people have access to capital investment and most professionals (in the health and social care field at least) are wary about taking on loans before the business has the means to repay them, even if they can access lending.

My point is that even if you have a great business idea and an established reputation getting enough money to start and sustain a business is tough. Cashflow is a make or break issue. Generating sufficient working capital is one of several elements that challenge new start-ups. In fact, of small businesses that fail (based on figures from the USA), 82% attribute this to cashflow issues and 29% say that they ran out of cash, whilst 42% said that the issue was a lack of market need for their products or services, 23% don’t have the right team to deliver the business, and 19% can’t match a competitor.

I guess that makes me a survivor. I launched my small business seven years ago this month, and it is gratifying that we’ve managed to weather the politics of adversity to still be trading. However, making money is still something I find quite challenging. I’ve come out of a career in the NHS in which the financial transactions involved were far removed from my daily life, and the idea of making a profit was quite aversive. But I’ve had to learn to make my business financially viable. Whilst there have been times that have tested me almost to my limits, the business is still functioning and financially we are still on the runway. I view that as a success. However, I feel like we have never quite reached the position of being airborne, where the business is self-sustaining without me personally doing income generating work as a substantial proportion of my time – and that would be an enormous issue if I ever needed time off sick.

My penultimate piece of advice is to speak to people who understand business and finance before you embark upon your journey, and regularly as you go along. I’ve had the benefit of great guidance as I’ve travelled outside of the NHS and into the world of business. As well as my fantastic ongoing mentoring from Impact Hub, which has included some work on the financial elements of the business plan, I recently won a place on a scheme sponsored by Barclays bank to help social purpose businesses to scale up. I’ve been attending Judge Business School at Cambridge University with several other small businesses, where we have had a series of days to explore our options and make a growth plan for the business. Having identified gaps, I’ve then taken actions to rectify them. For example, we’ve built a website for BERRI so that prospective subscribers can see what our tools have to offer, and that has brought in a flurry of new subscribers. I’ve also explored the options to help me scale up more rapidly and increase the impact of what we can deliver. Thankfully we have a strong business case, and I’ve been increasingly able to articulate that as a result of the work I’ve been doing. Over the last month I have spoken to two potential sources of investment. That would give me more runway to play with, but I need to work out whether we are fully aligned in terms of the destination and route to get there before I can be sure that is the right move to make compared to continued slow organic growth.

My final advice is to recognise your own limitations, and to find ways to delegate the tasks you are not good at or not enthused about, and spend time with people who share your passions or the skills you want to grow. For me that means having an administrator who makes up and chases up my invoices, accountants who can deal with payroll, tax, NI, pensions etc and advisors who guide me to apply for the right grants, tax rebates and training schemes. I also meet up regularly with other social entrepreneurs to share our progress and plan collaborative projects. I just appointed an experienced Business Development Lead for the company, who I hope will help me to weigh up the options for investment, and help us to grow quickly but in a way that feels right and prioritises making an positive impact on the lives of vulnerable children over maximising profit. I’m hoping we’ll reach sustainability by the end of the year, but there are still hurdles to overcome, and even when we get into the air I can’t imagine it will be a journey without occasional turbulence.