Helping each other help others

Last week, I had the great fortune to give three talks on positive psychology to a team of psychiatric nurses and caregivers. Working in psychiatry must be a difficult job at the best of times. One of the rooms where I gave the talk was an “interview room” where doctors meet with psychiatric patients. Due to a previous incident, this interview room was outfitted with “panic strips” on the walls – embedded pressure-sensitive alarm strips that a doctor could push in the event that the situation became unsafe, and security would be instantly summoned. Sort of like emergency strips that you might see on a subway. When I entered the room to set up the presentation, I was told that I shouldn’t press the strip. Apparently that sometimes happens by accident.

How difficult it must be to work in an environment where there are constant reminders of what could go wrong. Reminders of how patients might turn violent. Reminders of how those in your care are sometimes unable to cope with regular life, and so need to re-enter your care and remember how to look after themselves. From talking with the staff, they don’t get to hear much about the success stories. Sure, sometimes a former patient will come back and express effusive thanks for the care and medication and therapy. But this seems to be rare and fleeting.

You might think that, faced with a workplace such as this, the staff would either bond together and support each other, or else they might fall apart completely, overwhelmed with the negativity. This workplace has both – different shifts and different teams have different realities. Where things work well, they work really well – the staff organize fund-raising events to get money for patient activities. There is a sense of fun and community among the staff, and they look out for each other. In other teams or shifts, it is much harder to be friendly. Tensions run high. Factions have formed. Power struggles emerge. People are unhappy.

It was an interesting work environment to enter. Although the three presentations that I gave were identical from a content perspective, they could not have been more different in terms of the audiences. One group was very energetic. Another group was very thoughtful. A third group asked very pointed questions, which I can only imagine came from their background together.

I enjoyed my time there, learning about the psychiatric nursing world and how positive psychology could help professionally and personally. I do hope that I planted a few seeds, and I shared some business cards for future contacts and questions.

It was also a difficult presentation to make. Learning about positive psychology is one thing. Audiences that I have spoken to are generally very open to these new ideas, and even energized by them. However, implementing positive psychology is another journey entirely. It requires dedication, interest, experimentation – maybe even a good sense of humour as you laugh at your own learning and foibles. Workplaces also benefit from a sense of fun and enjoyment. I wonder how I could build that in to future presentations? Especially where the wall decorations are panic strips and security isn’t smiling when they arrive.




Lisa Sansom

Lisa Sansom has her MBA from the Rotman School of Management, and over two decades of experience in teaching and training. Her years of work in the organizational development field have included projects on change management, employee engagement, leadership development, team coaching and employer of choice strategies.

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