Holding space - how do we start conversations with colleagues?

This month’s Thrive Paediatrics blog explores the value of having each other’s backs and really being there when our colleagues need us.
icon: two hands shaped around a symbolic heart that has a medical cross in the middle of it

As medics, we like to fix things, to problem solve and come up with solutions that make our patients feel better. It’s fulfilling to see the impact of our decisions and actions, and so it’s understandable that for many of us the knee-jerk reaction to seeing someone in distress is to try to alleviate it.

But in the context of seeing colleagues struggling with exhaustion and overwhelm at work, is this a helpful approach? There’s often an expectation as doctors that we’ll just ‘get on with it’, an unspoken rule that ‘we’re all under pressure’ and that ‘the job comes first’. However, acknowledging the emotional impact of what we do is powerful and allows people to connect with one another. So, how do we begin to have these conversations?

The power of these conversations was huge... they made me realise that I wasn’t alone.

I was an ST5 when I became unwell. Burnout that tipped into mental illness. After a period of time off sick, I returned to work and began to share my experience, albeit very tentatively to start with. As I did, I realised that colleagues I had worked with for years also had their own stories, stories they too had felt unable to share. The power of these conversations was huge, not because they solved all my issues, but because they made me realise that I wasn’t alone. By continuing to hide my true self, I was perpetuating the myth that it wasn’t OK to be vulnerable.

So, I encourage you to reflect on whether you can role model a degree of vulnerability with your colleagues. It might be an honest discussion after a difficult resus or triggering experience, an admission about juggling life outside of work… Anything that reminds people that it’s OK to simply be human. As one of the Thrive Paediatrics fellows, I’ve been writing monthly blogs about this for a while. Someone recently contacted me about one of the pieces I had written. They had used it in a departmental teaching session to prompt reflection and discussion, stimulating emotive and heart felt connection. The idea of this made me smile, because these conversations are how we begin to shift the stigma.

In the year after returning to work, I was fortunate to have the unwavering support of my supervisor. There were many conversations in her office, informal meetings where she’d put aside the ePortfolio, make me a cuppa and we would just sit and talk. A space where I could be me, tears and all. A place where she listened, seemingly unafraid of the difficult conversations, doing her very best to understand. This was about holding space, because it’s too easy to jump in and problem solve, to find solutions and take over. These conversations started quite simply with her leaning in and listening.

...what I needed was people to believe in me and help me find my own voice...

During these times, whilst my head was somewhat clouded by anxiety, I needed people to have my back. Advocates and allies who would help me use my voice and support me to make decisions about my career. Though there were times when I just wanted someone to swoop in and take control, what I needed was people to believe in me and help me find my own voice, people willing to support me to navigate the system and fight my corner, people who got it.

I was fortunate. I found this through my educational supervisor and a deanery mentor but, in truth, we can all do this. We can educate ourselves, try to understand the challenges facing disabled doctors, neurodivergent doctors, ones with caring responsibilities, ones facing racism and micro-aggressions, doctors new to the UK or those experiencing burnout. Colleagues experiencing infertility treatment, others navigating pregnancy loss. We can quite simply empathise and learn to be there for one another.  

As part of the Thrive Paediatrics project, I have heard many stories of doctors who have experienced the guilt and shame of having time off work. But I have also heard about kind and compassionate colleagues who have listened and advocated for others. These are the behaviours we hope to grow, because we all need someone in our corner, someone willing to hold space and advocate. So, I ask that you be that person.