Acknowledging how intense our work can be and how normal our reactions are

The life of a healthcare professional can be emotionally challenging, punctuated by daily highs and lows. Unlike most other workplaces, our staff witness ill health and death every day. May Nel is a respiratory physiotherapist who volunteered to take part in our first ever Schwartz Round – an event we opened up to all staff as an opportunity to reflect on the emotional impact of their roles. Here May shares her experiences:

When I heard about the Schwartz Rounds, I was keen to take part and experience for myself why they are known for being beneficial to staff. So much of what we do in our work is about compassion and giving – be that care, treatment, support, advice. As all the care we give is based on facts, evidence and best practice, it’s very easy for us as healthcare workers to become almost ‘clinical’ in our approach and in the way we express ourselves. We rarely have the time to stop and think about how challenges at work are affecting us emotionally because we are so invested in supporting our patients, their relatives, friends, carers.

The Schwartz Round I attended was entirely focussed on my own emotional well-being. I sat on a panel with a consultant, nurse and our chief executive and we shared our individual stories of ‘a patient I will never forget’ for the audience to reflect on and discuss. It was clear from the start this wasn’t your conventional gathering of healthcare professionals. As clinicians we often meet up with colleagues from other disciplines to share ways we can improve services and performance; we tend to focus on action plans and practical steps. My experience of the Schwartz Round was different. It wasn’t about solving problems or fixing anything – in fact we were discouraged from doing that. Instead we concentrated on having time out from our roles, and being normal, off duty people with fears, flaws and insecurities.

Pent up emotions

The whole experience of the Schwartz Round convinced me I’m not alone in suppressing my feelings at work. But it’s clear pent up emotions can have a negative impact on how we interact with colleagues and patients so having a safe space to release some of this tension is a real benefit for staff. It’s so important to maintain your emotional well-being if you want to cope and thrive professionally in a healthcare environment.

The Schwartz Round helped me to lighten my emotional load, but admittedly I’m quite an open person so sharing feelings comes easily to me. Having said this, even those participants who came along to the event, and listened but didn’t speak, benefitted from it. Everyone had the opportunity to hear how others are affected by their working environments, and to empathise. We each had one of those ‘oh yeah, I know that feeling’ moments, and it certainly helped me to realise I’m not weak or crazy for having certain feelings – they’re perfectly human.

These kind of sessions are a real leveller too – you realise, regardless of seniority, we’re all fallible human beings underneath, whether you’re a senior consultant or a ward clerk.

Working in intensive care normalises death. I sometimes hear myself speaking about death to my students and realise I may come across as blasé or cold. I always explain I’ve had to harden myself to certain experiences – it’s unfortunate but part of what I need to do to survive and provide the right support to patients and their loved ones. I often tell my staff, as well as my family, that if I walk out of the door and stub my toe, you can expect me to cry ten times harder than necessary. This is my ‘excusable’ release for all the pent up sadness, grief and frustration I can’t express at work. The Schwartz Round gave me an opportunity to be vulnerable and to put aside this hard exterior and share my feelings. After the event I returned to work feeling lighter, calmer, and more refreshed. It allowed me to be more effective, and in turn more caring.

When I see the Schwartz Rounds being promoted by senior leaders in our organisation, I feel encouraged that my employer values my mental well-being, as well as my clinical work. I think all NHS staff could benefit from an hour at a Schwartz Round. 

More about Schwartz Rounds

Schwartz Rounds were developed in Boston to promote compassion in healthcare, at the behest of Kenneth Schwartz, a prominent lawyer who had cancer and observed the personal side of staff looking after him.

In 2009, the King’s Fund launched Schwartz Rounds in the UK in partnership with the Point of Care Foundation.These rounds are currently active at over 100 acute and community healthcare sites.

Schwartz Rounds offer staff from all disciplines, both clinical and non-clinical, a safe and reliable space to reflect.

We are actively looking for community healthcare professionals such as GPs, district nurses, community AHPs to join our Schwartz Rounds, both as a panel members and audience members. If you are interested in taking part, please contact:

Schwartz Rounds at the Trust are supported by Macmillan Cancer Support and Imperial College Healthcare Charity.

Watch a Schwartz round demonstration