"Let's try again." Amanda, an amateur but talented ballroom dancer, restarted the music and daintily, expertly, cha-cha-cha'd her way into a lunge and twist, neatly picking up the basic step on the return beat. We enthusiastically followed her lead as she paced out the steps in front of us. Awkwardly, I crashed into the person next to me. "Sorry!" The class ground to halt for the fourth time. "And again," said Amanda.
Outside, a group of people clustered around six pieces of paper laid out on the table in the sun. "Beautiful." Catherine, an artist, pointed to one of the pictures. "The composition here is really strong. Look how the ivy leaf has come out as heart-shaped."
The group gazed at the emerging ghostly shapes of feathers, leaves, grasses and flowers, pale white on a brilliant blue background - their first exploration of the world of cyanotypes.
Track back to a year earlier. Sue and I are in a small room with an assortment of tables waiting for the group of senior nurses to finish the co-consulting exercise we've set them. The chairs and carpet tiles are covered with coffee stains. We're drinking tepid tea out of polystyrene cups. Sue peers into her mobile phone and sighs.
"We need to plan the programme for our work with the clinical directors next week."
I nod. We are tired. The work is intense; the people exhausted; the context of their professional work impossible. And yet each group we encounter overwhelms us anew with their passion and commitment to do better: when given the chance, to experiment, to reflect, to try again.
Sue sighs again. "If only we could give these people a break - take them away for a week, somewhere lovely, and run their leadership programme there."
The Knackered Nurses' Retreat "Right," I say. "Somewhere where they could feel special for once." I wave my hand around taking in the shabbiness of the room. "Somewhere with good food, relaxation, fresh air - a sort of retreat - where they could step off the wheel, take stock, re-energise, and get creative."
I down my tea. Sue looks at me. "What? A sort of knackered nurses' retreat?" We both laugh. "Come on," she says. "Let's get back to work."
And so the idea of the 'Knackered Nurses' Retreat' took root. That was just a working title, of course, but that's how it started. We signed up our colleague Bernie to help, found a venue - a beautiful estate in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, in Andalucía, Spain - booked a week, put down a deposit, designed a programme and with hearts in mouths set about recruiting. Our belief was 'build it and people will come.' And so they did. In November we ran the first Autumn Leadership Retreat with 12 amazing people drawn from health, social care, and social enterprises.
As executive coaches, people often ask us to help them address their work-life balance. Usually, this is because people are simply exhausted and find themselves searching increasingly for 'meaning' in what they are doing. Working in our health and social care services, or third sector, is a tough job. Sometimes people are working so hard they have lost sight of what they are good at, why they are doing what they do, and how they could do things differently and better - if only they could stop for a moment and think.
"Sometimes people are working so hard they have lost sight of what they are good at, why they are doing what they do."
David Whyte suggests our current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic:
"People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way. These hidden human dynamics of integration are more of a conversation, more of a synthesis and more of an almost religious and sometimes almost delirious quest for meaning than a simple attempt at daily ease and contentment."
Our Leadership Retreat offered health and social care leaders the chance to step out for a week, draw breath, and rediscover their creativity and sense of identity. Simply put, we were aiming for development of the 'integrated self'. Our belief is that integration of the relationship between these three things - work, self and others - is essential not only for creative leadership, but also for maintaining health and wellbeing and ultimately, within heath and social care, ensuring quality of care. This focus on creativity, we realised, was central to the programme design - exploring where it comes from for each of us uniquely and how best can we nurture it.
In both the health and social care services there is a constant and pressing desire for innovation but frequently a lack of support for trying out new things. Within this paradox, how do we allow our creativity to flourish?
"Integration of the relationship between work, self and others is essential for creative leadership, and also for maintaining health and wellbeing."
Over the last decade there has been a growing focus on the use of approaches such as 'design thinking', the 'maker movement', and Nancy Klein's 'Time to Think'. Many of these highlight the importance of daily, weekly and monthly activities to fuel innovation and creativity. There is also an emphasis on the importance of adequate sleep, exchanging ideas in down time when 'out of task', and understanding there are no wrong answers to the complex challenges we face at work - all ideas, however left field, are worth exploring.
Creating a powerful environment During the retreat we explored these approaches, experimented with putting creative ideas into practice using different media, and built on the need for time to think. Overall, we managed to create a powerful environment for personal and professional growth.
And yes, Latin dance, cyanotypes, hill walking, and making and using sock puppets to express our inner and outer worlds, were all part of that – alongside theoretical sessions devoted to deepening our understanding of personal development, relational aspects of leadership, political and policy concepts of health and social care, and technical expertise involved in management.
So how did we do? Here are a few of the comments fed back to us:
"The leadership retreat was a safe positive space to have clear thinking, learn new skills, have fun and meet great people. The surroundings and treatments on offer added to the overall experience. I have come away feeling optimistic and uplifted." "I just wanted to say a huge thank you last week. It was energising, challenging and therapeutic at the same time."
"Thank you for the opportunity to experience the personal benefits of 'making time to think' as well as the privilege to witness the impact on others. We were connected on a level that's subtle and often under-appreciated - thank you for creating those moments."
"Learning about the inner voice. I never thought at any point in my career I would make a sock puppet or end up being its puppeteer!! Hilarious!"
"The accommodation was fantastic, really comfortable and clean, although I am not vegetarian the food was superb and so much of it. Loads of tea and coffee and biscuits." "I would recommend it as an opportunity to step off the wheel and have space to look at where you are and where you want to be and how you might achieve that. It is also a fabulous networking opportunity." "I have to say I had so much fun! The whole week was amazing. I learnt so much and see things in a very different way. I need to figure out where I can channel my energies with regards to my career." And so, on the strength of this, we are going to do it all over again in May 2019.
Pippa Gough is a leadership and organisational development consultant, and a qualified nurse, midwife and health visitor.