“By the time you are 50, it’s either God or the garden,” said a close friend a decade ago when she was approaching her half century. At a decade younger than she was, I had laughed, pointed out that it had always been the garden for her, and that I couldn’t see me being interested in either. If I had thought about it, I would have put my money on a return to the church rather than mud, dirt and wellingtons. 

What a difference a decade makes!

Ten years ago I was working hard, travelling a lot and bringing up an eleven year old child, whilst being married to a shift worker. He weeded the garden twice a year, pushed the lawnmower round the pocket handkerchief lawn once a week and that was it. We had a couple of house plants – his, which I thought were untidy. I preferred to spend my free time reading, sleeping or with our daughter. 

So, what changed?

Everything. And me.

In 2018 when, forced to retreat from a part of my career that was making me ill, I took solace under my tree with my journal, a sense of protection afforded by the greenery, the semi wildness in an urban setting. Two years later, having been back on my feet with a renewed purpose and new, respectful colleagues, having resumed my international, highly enjoyable work I was beaten down once again this time by a pandemic. No work for six months resulted in my tidying out the house and coming across a packet of seeds, a free gift with a purchase the previous summer. 

Wondering whether seeds had a sell by date, I sprinkled them onto some compost and was shocked to find myself genuinely delighted when they germinated. Every day, from May to September, while the kettle boiled for my coffee, I would inspect my wildflowers, marvelling at the new shoots, pretty colours and variety of leaves in my pot. Given how little was going on in our lives, the appearance of a new flower almost daily was a major event. 

Not working meant I went back to experiencing summers beyond the (often cold and wet) six weeks of the school holidays and I enjoyed the April to September sunshine, morning coffee in my pyjamas in my own private woodland garden. Early Autumn saw me planting a wildflower meadow in a raised border, putting our terracotta pots to bed and hoping that next Summer would come as quickly as possible.  

Even if this Spring is bitterly cold and Summer 2021 still hasn’t been invited to the party, I am nurturing my desk meadows, overjoyed at the forget-me-not seeds which are doing well on the window sill, and doing the round each morning as the coffee is made. I look back on my colleague’s prediction over a decade ago and wonder what was behind the phrase that she had heard someone else say, and passed on to me. And I came to the conclusion it is about the meaning of life and the need to nurture. 

But why is the need to nurture so strong?

Maybe for some of us it is part of who we are. We went into careers that required us to care, and we went into them because we do care. We care about individuals, patients, children, young people, victims of crime, people with all kinds of needs. And we care about the systems that enable us to – or inhibit us in providing for those needs. When you know you care, you need to be allowed to do just that. Being prevented from caring is a form of abuse. And yet, that is what we are facing today.

Covid has been the icing on the cake of over a decade of austerity measures in public services.  The impact began to be felt in my sector in 2016 with the axing of several support services for frontline healthcare workers. This stealth robbery continued in a clandestine manner, removing access to conferences and educational activities, preventing release from Trusts to learn or to teach others less experienced. The commissioning agenda saw more work, for which people were neither trained nor capable being pushed onto front line practitioners: medics having to run courses; teachers being left to do the work of educational psychologists; police sergeants being given some of HR’s responsibilities, and fewer experts being employed to do what they had always done – provide support and care for the already under resourced front line. 

As the front line burn out (a recent report claims 67% of 3537 healthcare workers screened positive for burnout*) their valuable support systems, already diminished over the last five years, are disappearing altogether. As well as coping with unprecedented demand on the front line, people are also having to adopt highly specialised tasks that were previously done by others. 

Then came Covid, and the glorious technological take over. It played right into the hands of those wielding the axe. Why see people face to face when you can see their heads on a screen? Why use two days for immersive, experiential learning when you can read aloud some slides over Microsoft Teams? Why employ an Occupational Health department when you can use an outsourced HR assistant to telephone people? What was initially provisional, created swiftly and temporarily as a way of coping when the pandemic first hit, has become permanent. The only people not back to work are those who are already being dispensed with. Covid could not have come at a better time for a Government wanting to thin out its workforce even further.

But this is not sustainable. And it is not healthy. The few who are left to do the jobs of everyone in the organisation, will wither, wilt or walk, destroyed and burned out.  Already we are seeing an unprecedented number of people who have had enough, made sick by the unrelenting pressure and the prohibition from doing their jobs. 

The need to nurture is ingrained. When you have done it for thirty years, when it is in your blood, your reason for living, and you are stopped in your tracks, what are you to do? Whether you are one of the front line support professionals, or whether a front line practitioner, work-life may not be sustainable much beyond fifty at this rate; we are either dispensed with or we buckle. As the Government pushes back the pensionable age towards 70, some of us would just like to be able to reach 60, or finish the work we started. We began our careers with a passion to make a difference; to end it knowing we have not been fully able to do so, is soul destroying. 

So, if you find yourselves in my shoes, grab a packet of seeds; for some of us, there’s little else to care for these days. 

Denning et al (2021) Determinants of burnout and other  aspects of psychological well-being in healthcare workers during the Covid-19 pandemic: A multinational cross-sectional study. PLoS One. 16(4): e0238666