Writing Your Way to Well-being

The beneficial effects of writing have been known since ancient times when Apollo was the god of both poetry and healing.  In recent times these have been described in different forms – the physical effect of writing on brain activity, the role of writing in releasing inner creativity, creative writing as a means to improve health and well-being, and also as a therapeutic tool in health and social care services.

Believe it or not, the physical act of writing itself has been found to have a positive effect on our wellbeing.   Many people feel drawn to write down their feelings and experiences in diaries, poems and songs especially when they’re feeling strong emotions such as grief, despair, love or joy. It seems that regardless of the quality of the writing, this can be very beneficial.

Researchers from the University of California have been studying the effects of writing and found there is an emotional benefit to expressing ourselves in print, a kind of regulation of distress.  Apparently writing tends ‘to reduce activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain connected with emotion and fear and increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the mind’s regulator.’ (Daily Telegraph, 16/2/09)

How would you like to wake up and write 3 pages every day for 12 weeks?  Write whatever comes into your head and don’t look at what you’ve written for at least 8 weeks.  This advice comes from Julia Cameron, author of a programme designed to help discover and recover your Creative Self.

These ‘morning pages’ are not meant to be well written. The idea is that you allow your hand to move across the page and write anything that comes to mind. “Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid or too weird to be included” says Julia.

The process of writing down thoughts and feelings on a daily basis can help to tackle your self-doubts, self-criticism and worries, and release your hidden inner creative talents.

Why not join a creative writing group where creative expression as a way of enhancing health and well-being is more important than learning to write technically well. The benefits of a group experience can be:

  • A sense of trust and community – reading out a few sentences or a poem encourages the sharing of quite difficult feelings
  • Increased awareness of other people and the environment
  • Greater self-esteem through insights or writing achievements shared with the group

Don’t feel put off by the fear of having to read out your work in a critical environment – in groups like these the emphasis is on nurturing and encouraging creativity.  Lapidus is an organization which promotes group initiatives such as these, with its belief that ‘words used creatively can be a powerful tool for health and personal and community development – through the writing, reading and performing of poetry, prose, fiction, drama and story.’ (http://www.lapidus.org.uk )

In health and social services, creative writing is being recognized more widely as a therapeutic tool particularly working with mental health problems.  When people are in a state of mental distress or depression, writing is one way of expressing negative feelings and gaining distance from them.  It can also be a way of accessing happy memories and identifying a time frame when things were not so bad.  Creative writing can be a relatively safe form of expressing difficult, contradictory and dangerous feelings and enable them to be explored further as part of therapy.

Imagination and reminiscence can be encouraged through creative writing, skills to improve concentration and orientation in time can be developed.  An additional benefit is that someone who finds creative writing helpful in a therapeutic environment may also join a community based group which can support the ongoing process of rehabilitation and social inclusion.

References

Bolton G et al (2004), Writing Cures: An Introductory Handbook of Writing in Counselling and Psychotherapy, Brunner-Routledge, New York

Phillips D. et al (1999), Writing Well: Creative Writing and Mental Health, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London

Cameron J. (1995), The Artists Way, Pan Macmillan, London

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Social networking-a plan of action

How many of us have enthusiastically signed up to a social networking site only to abandon it a few weeks later because it’s just not worth the angst. Yet social networking must be the most exciting shift in human communication in 100 years, and organisations working in social care and the community need to be tapping into its huge potential.  The key to success lies, as in all things, in having a plan.

You really don’t have to know everything at once, take it step by step. As an organisation, think about the three stages of social networking – helping people first to get to know you, second to understand your expertise, and third to support you.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What do you want to achieve with social networking?
  • Who do you want to connect with?
  • Where will you find them?
  • What do you want them to know?
  • What do you want them to do?
  • How much time can you dedicate?
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Social networking for the Third Sector – a new age

What are the benefits and pitfalls of social networking for charities, social enterprises and community groups? In the last six months I’ve really noticed an increase in those testing the waters of different social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, but there’s still a lot of trepidation about this unknown territory.

So let’s take a quick look at the advantages – you can:

• Build and raise awareness of your organisation and what you do, establish your credibility and uniqueness

• Attract people to your website / to sign up for your newsletter

• Build relationships by putting yourself out there and getting known

• Connect with people you wouldn’t previously have had access to.

• Respond to increasing expectations about the transparency, communication and openness that social networking provides.

• Do market research – gather information about other organizations are doing, what’s hot on the agenda

• Stay in touch with supporters much more easily, give them useful information and listen to what they are asking for.

• Gain support for campaigns, raise funds, promote events, recruit volunteers

• Enable more people to ‘get’ to you – encouraging access

Of course there are potential pitfalls as well, though a good hard look at what they are in reality does help dispel some anxiety. With the right kind of preparation and planning, these can usually be overcome, or at least minimised.

Probably the biggest anxiety is around privacy – the feeling that if you venture out onto social networking sites everyone will know your personal business. Of course they won’t – unless you choose to put it out there! Remember social networking is  the same as real life – and just as organisations use protocols, policies and procedures to manage how people work together, with service users, and the public, so these need to be applied to internet communication.

This is not to say there aren’t legitimate concerns about setting boundaries, particularly with the exponential growth of Facebook.  And there are also issues about safeguarding staff and service users. Professional guidance around the use of increasingly complicated privacy settings, and indeed general guidance around how to develop sound policies and procedures would really benefit the voluntary and community sector.

So what are the ‘rules of engagement’ if you want to start promoting your service or your cause:

• Start making connections with people you know

• Be consistent- if you don’t contribute regularly, it doesn’t look good

• Offer something people want – information, tips,

• Don’t be tempted to try the ‘hard sell’- people switch off

• Ask questions, seek advice, communicate to build relationships

• Observe the rules – written or unwritten, be aware of your environment

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A solution focused model of team working

Often when working with teams, we feel that by analysing the problems thoroughly, bringing tensions and conflicts to the surface, identifying mistakes and weaknesses, somehow this will help the team find a resolution.  One outcome of this is that we become expert in the problems, and usually this means digging ourselves a deeper hole instead of moving forward in a positive way.  The more we talk about the problem, the bigger and more complex it becomes.

A useful model of intervention which takes a radically different line is based on a solution focused approach.  This model was developed in the early 1980s by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg from their research on the effectiveness of different methods in couple and family therapy.  Since then solution orientated working has been increasingly applied in business development and in team working.

The advantages of this approach can be summarised as follows:

  • Exploring past experiences of success gives you a more positive picture of the team
  • The potential of the team becomes clearer; new images about what the team can become start to develop
  • Creates trust and takes away fear of being embarrassed or criticised
  • Agreed goals are based on existing resources in the team and increases confidence in achieving them
  • Time and energy are focused on developing solutions rather than analysing problems
  • Working on strengths help the team become stronger and is very motivating
  • Focusing on skills and resources helps build the identity of the team; willingness to perform often increases
  • Becomes clear that not everything has to change; there’s good work going on already; past success deserves to be recognised and celebrated

(Meier, 2005)

As with problems, the more we talk about solutions the bigger and more interesting they become.  For a manager dealing with the everyday demands of running a service, a change in perspective to one of actively developing solutions can have significant effects and free up blocked situations with their team.

This is best illustrated by the way we use questions to find out more. By asking questions in different ways we can get some very different answers.

No analytical questions about the past …

.. but questions about shaping the future
How did the problem arise? What do you need to solve this problem successfully?
Who caused the problem? When a miracle happens, and all your problems are solved satisfactorily, what exactly will be different?
Why did s/he do that? How could s/he behave differently in the future?
What is the worst aspect of this issue? What exactly should be different in the future?
Why? What will other people notice when you have reached your goal?

(Meier, 2005)

There are other elements of the solution focused approach which can be usefully applied in meetings or team workshops such as:

  • clarifying expectations and goals for the session
  • identifying ‘hot topics’
  • collecting information about skills, strengths and resources available within the team
  • designing a ‘future perfect’ where all problems have been resolved
  • using scales to assess the current situation
  • agree next steps to move forward as a team

References

Gallwey T. (2002) The Inner Game of Work, House Trade Paperbacks

Landsberg M. (1996) The Tao of Coaching, Harper Collins

Meier D. (2004) Team Coaching with the SolutionCircle, SolutionSurfers

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Common problems in teams – motivating staff

A lack of motivation whether of individual team members or with the team as a whole can create major problems for any service or business.  Motivating staff to work effectively and efficiently is an essential management and leadership skill, and understanding how people are motivated may be critical if difficulties arise.

Research has demonstrated that often what really motivates people is different from the things they say they are dissatisfied about.  For example, people working in health or social care often complain about their relationship with their supervisor, their pay, their working conditions, or the policies and procedures they have to follow.  However, research findings show that even when many of these issues are addressed, satisfaction is short-lived.  What really motivates people is the work itself, a sense of achievement, recognition, responsibility and the prospects of advancement. (Herzberg, 1959)

Even pay, often the first thing cited as a reason for job dissatisfaction, is not a primary motivator in the workplace.

A useful tool to use in analysing what lies behind the kind of behaviour which demotivates the team is the SKILL/WILL Matrix. This tool helps a manager to decide the most effective way to respond to improve the situation.  Using this model, the Skill set of a team depends on experience, training, understanding and role perception. The Will depends on the desire to achieve, incentives, security and confidence.  The model can be used either with individuals or with the team as a whole depending on what’s going on.

The Skill / Will Matrix

High Will

Guide Delegate

Low Will

Direct / instruct Excite / coach

Low Skill

High Skill

(Landsberg, 1996)

References

Herzberg F. (1966) Work and the Nature of Man, New York:Wiley

Landsberg M. (1996) The Tao of Coaching, Harper Collins

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Building Your Team

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” Henry Ford

”Teamwork is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” Andrew Carnegie

As with other aspects of organisational management, team building is a process which requires attention, planning, and investment of time and energy.

The most useful place to start will always be taking stock about where your team are right now.

First ask yourself some questions about the overall team culture:

  1. Is there a sense of commitment to the team? Do people attend and contribute to meetings? Do they follow up on actions and report back?
  2. Are there lots of complaints about other team members, other teams or managers?
  3. Does team morale feel positive? Do individuals receive regular feedback on their performance? Do people take up development opportunities?
  4. Do people feel unsure what’s expected of them? Is there a lack of coordination?
  5. Does conflict or disagreement within the team get resolved quickly?

You can access a more comprehensive on-line team assessment questionnaire at http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMM_84.htm

Then consider what elements are already in place to support team working.

  1. How often are team meetings held? Do they feel well structured and productive, or disorganised and inefficient?
  2. Are there regular in-house training opportunities?
  3. How do staff get to contribute their ideas or give feedback?
  4. Are there occasional opportunities for social contact outside the workplace?
  5. Is there any time out for the team, away from the workplace, once or twice a year?

Having considered these questions so you have an initial assessment of where your team is right now, there are various ways you can choose to address some common problems.

One important way to improve team working to make sure the team vision is ‘owned’ collectively and can be articulated clearly.  Sometimes this process needs to be revisited; especially if there have been changes in service provision.

Another useful method is to check what kind of team goals you’re setting.  SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bound, and if you make sure any goals or targets meet these criteria then they become much easier for everyone to understand and to evaluate progress later.

A longer term approach is needed if you want to create and sustain a team learning environment.  This requires a level of trust and security which can be hard to achieve in the demanding and regulation bound services provided by residential care homes and domiciliary care agencies.  ‘Team learning’ is about developing reflection and dialogue about professional practice. Mistakes are seen as opportunities for learning, experimentation and new ideas are encouraged. (Senge et al, 1994)

Tim Gallwey (2002) argues that achieving good performance is dependent on two other factors: enjoyment and learning at work.  All too often if the team is not working as effectively as it could, managers can respond by exerting more pressure and this helps to create a vicious circle.  An alternative approach which builds on past successes and the strengths, skills and resources of team members is much more likely to move the team forward positively.

Gallwey T. (2002) The Inner Game of Work, House Trade Paperbacks

Senge P. et al (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Team Effectiveness Assessment, Mind Tools

http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMM_84.htm (accessed 29.11.09)

For more information about the work of Wayfinder Associates, go to http://www.wayfinderassociates.co.uk . Register for the monthly Wayfinder e-newsletter and receive a complimentary e-booklet by Carolyn Barber, Finding Your Way Around Project Management.

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Knowledge Management in Social Care – time to embrace the internet?

The internet revolution has transformed the way in which research and professional knowledge can be accessed and used to enhance social work practice and social care services.

But how far has this changed the experiences and perceptions of front-line adult social care staff in relation to research mindedness and professional development in its broadest sense? What are the aspirations of social care staff, and how can employers and managers encourage and support the development of a learning culture within their organisations?

A recent on-line survey of one local authority adult social care workforce highlighted some key issues. This was followed up by two focus groups where a mix of staff from different services discussed the issues raised by the survey in more depth.

Making use of internet resources

The use of the internet was clearly seen as an invaluable source of information for social workers and social care staff – almost equal to training in importance. However knowledge about what’s available via the internet was very variable, and staff didn’t feel supported to spend time exploring this medium. Even in computer dependent field work settings, surfing the net can be seen as a diversion from ‘real’ work. Management fears about social workers accessing Facebook or Ebay instead of completing on-line client records may be one factor. It was also suggested that peer pressure discouraged the use of the internet, especially in direct social care services where access to computers is more limited and culturally there’s a premium on time spent with service users as against office based working.

Discussion in the focus groups highlighted the huge potential for making use of internet resources – if only this could be filtered for relevance so that front-line staff could be directed to information of value as and when they needed it. Certain websites were recommended for easy access to the information needed, whereas others were found to be frustrating to navigate and not particularly helpful. There was a sense that greater access to internet research helped broaden people’s perspectives and increased their focus on outcomes rather than process – surely a critical factor in progress towards personalisation.

Whole team learning

There were a range of ideas about how to focus in on ‘whole team’ learning, rather than the ‘scattergun approach’ to sending individual workers off on training courses.

“Staggered training causes problems with agency cover and it could take a year to have all staff trained on for instance Mental Capacity Act so we are not all working to the same agenda.”

Allocating research and learning tasks within the team were also seen as a positive way forward, with team members presenting information as a basis for team discussions at regular intervals. This would also help to challenge the culture of not being ‘allowed’ to be seen to do internet research.

Another suggestion was that a greater emphasis on the learning and development of team managers would set a tone within the organisation which valued professional progression and training for all staff. Other ideas included the use of ‘information champions’ and more use of external training opportunities.

“I think it would help if we had information champions, people who could be freed up from their work duties to spend time researching specific subjects to pass on to colleagues so that a more thorough overview could be cascaded to work teams”

“I think seminars/workshops would be good.  Funding is an issue, but we need to consider external courses to develop staff.”

Research mindedness

Of those responding to the on-line survey and attending the focus groups, most were clearly committed to learning and professional development, and there was a high level of interest in doing research. However there was a lack of knowledge about  research done by colleagues, and little understanding of developments such as the Research Governance Framework introduced to local authorities some two years ago.

While there were individual stories about the role of research evidence helping to inform policies, strategies and direct work with service users, the idea that this was now the cultural norm within social care remained unconvincing.

“Research is generally done by managers, practitioners are too caught up with the day to day … behind the advice and discussion there is research knowledge – I’m guessing here ….”

Postscript

The Continuing Professional Development strategy and framework[1] developed by Skills for Care, the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) and other partner agencies is intended to mean changes on the frontline of service delivery. Some very practical steps need to be found to effectively integrate the three critical areas of internet resources, whole team learning and research mindedness identified in this study. This will only be possible when underpinned by determination to support the growth of organisational learning cultures in the arena of professional social care.


[1] http://www.skillsforcare.org.uk/developing_skills/Continuing_Professional_Development/Continuing_Professional_Development_(CPD)_introduction.aspx

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