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The importance of refreshing values

Cleo Williamson 16 June 2017

In this blog, Cleo Williamson reflects upon the importance of values in life and work; why it sometimes takes conscious effort to keep them in focus; and why this is especially applicable to healthcare staff.

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One thing that I always appreciated when growing up was how my parents always emphasised the importance of values – of knowing them, refreshing them, and upholding them.

Values are subtle, but they are woven into the patterns of our behaviour, our feelings, even our politics. We all change all the time, and over the last few years my life has changed a lot. Most recently, I moved to London, a huge city which could not be more different from the small town that I grew up in. Leaving “home” has offered me new choices, ones which are perhaps different from those of my parents; it has enabled me to learn where I differ. But there have also been enlightening moments which have brought me back “home”, which have made me remember my values.

No matter how different my choices, the guiding principles that motivate me are the values that were instilled in me: putting people first, being kind to others, working hard, being honest with myself. I come back to these values despite all the changes.

Values-driven staff

What I love about my job here at The Point of Care Foundation is that we get to work with healthcare staff, and they are some of the most values-driven people that I have ever met. Many of the staff that we work with are driven by an appreciation for people and life, are guided by a belief in kindness and care, and uphold human relationships as essential and meaningful. They genuinely care about their work, and I’m always moved by how closely their motivation for working in healthcare is driven by this personal value system.

And yet I think it takes conscious work to keep one’s values in focus. Sometimes changes and pressures can distort our perspective, and it takes conscious effort to take time out to remember what really matters to us. Each time that we make a significant decision, we essentially come back to a question of values: what are they and how important are they? Are they still relevant? With every step, I find that the same values lie beneath any changes I undergo, but it is only by persisting with this ongoing questioning that I am reminded of this.

Yet this act of ‘perspective refreshing’ becomes even more difficult when there are extra pressures on us. If the pressure is too great, it makes it difficult to keep our values a priority, especially if our environment does not support them or make it easy for them to thrive. To me, this is a problem which is particularly relevant to healthcare staff. Many go into this profession with the intention of providing compassionate care and making a meaningful difference to patients, who can often feel vulnerable and frightened. However, in the increasingly pressurised environment of the health service, it can be difficult to keep this core motivation in mind. When staff are busy, pressurised to meet targets, values become overshadowed.

Furthermore, the very nature of their work means that it is easy for their daily job to become ‘normal’ and routine, and when this happens the values that initially motivated them stop being refreshed. It is easy to forget how it feels for the patient, and compassion can inadvertently fall by the wayside.

Our work brings values to the fore

But this is why I believe our work to be so important. We know that many healthcare staff are acutely value driven, and we know that it is better for both them and their patients if they can remain connected to these values – to their original motivation for working in healthcare. If they are reminded of how important it is to them to be compassionate and to take time for the ‘small things’, they not only provide better care for patients, but they also feel more satisfied in their work because they feel that they are true to themselves.

Both Schwartz Rounds and our Quality Improvement work are centred on this drive to remind staff why they signed up for this job in the first place. In Schwartz Rounds, staff share their experiences of giving care, and having sat in on several, I can’t help but notice how the stories often circle back to the same themes: why staff do the job they do; how important it is to them that they put people first; how central human interaction is in making them feel that they have done a good job; how much they truly feel the work that they do.

One Schwartz Round I attended focused on how labels are attached to patients before staff even meet them, but how these assumptions are overridden as they get to know the person behind the patient. Many audience members shared their most memorable and meaningful interactions with patients, which were the instances when they got to really spend time with them and hear their story. I remember, for example, a dementia nurse sharing how she got to know the ‘beautiful soul’ of an elderly lady after previously seeing her as ‘decrepit’. Moments of connection such as these were what made her job feel meaningful and reminded her of what is important, and to me this comes back to a conversation about values. It mattered to her that she truly understood her patient. Time and again, Schwartz Rounds centre on this theme.

Similarly, the tools we focus on in our Quality Improvement work, such as patient shadowing and filmed interviews of patients, enable staff to refresh their perspective and see care through the eyes of their patients. They are offered a new lens through which they can understand what matters most to patients, and how this connects with what matters to them: to be able to truly care for the patient according to their wishes. Using the insight this refreshed perspective offers, they are able to drive small changes which shape a healthcare system that prioritises the patient perspective; in other words, which has human values at its heart. Many of the staff we work with experience a new sense of satisfaction in their work because they have seen how this benefits the patient, and this has reminded of them of why they do the job that they do.

For me, refreshing my perspective so that I can always be grounded by my values is really important. But keeping values in check is not straightforward, and sometimes we need a helpful lens for our perspective to be refreshed and to remember what really matters.

Since healthcare staff spend so much of their time caring for others, I think it is only right that we offer them this lens. That we give them the tools, resources, and time to get their dose of refreshing light. That we care for them.