Share the burden, leaders say - but who shares theirs?

Leaders need to try opening up to colleagues when they are struggling at work, says Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

When I give talks about Julia's House, I sometimes start with the words: "We look after children who will die young." It's safe to say that they always get people's attention.

The day-to-day atmosphere in our hospice is surprisingly uplifting, with children playing, singing and laughing.

However, there is no denying that the illnesses we deal with are incurable, mostly degenerative and ultimately fatal.

You might think that the longer one works in this field the more hardened one becomes - more professional, more able to cope with the effects of death and grief.

I've worked at Julia's House for six years and in palliative care for 10, and I find that the reverse is true. The longer I do this work, the more I struggle to deal with these feelings in myself. Even when the children's conditions are comparatively stable and their days are filled with life, the reality of their stoic suffering can be unbearably sad to witness.

People who work for charities that are involved in children's palliative care - newly affiliated in a national membership called Together For Short Lives - all face this dilemma. But similar feelings must affect people working in a huge range of good causes.

These feelings are complex and challenging. If we didn't feel for the suffering of others, we probably wouldn't be as good at our jobs.

But we're not suffering these terrible afflictions ourselves, either directly or as family members. So we often respectfully confine our feelings to the shadows, perhaps even carrying guilt on some level about our need to grieve. We are, after all, mere witnesses, albeit highly engaged ones.

I have lost count of the number of times, when speaking about our work, that I have almost choked with sadness. Perhaps this is because, as workers in this field, we bear witness to the tragic loss of a child again and again.

Here we come to a leadership conundrum: you encourage colleagues to share their burden, so you should practise what you preach, yet it's your role to support them as their leader - not the other way round.

I think the answer is either to find a sounding board outside the organisation, or to let down your guard more often with colleagues, but without complaint or self-pity. Distress and grief, after all, are part of life.

The alternative is burn-out and the end of the road. In children's hospices, we of all people should beware the risk of this, for our work reminds us that everything that has a beginning must have an end.

Someone will always be there for you, when your tide is low, and they will say: "I know how you feel, I feel it too, and let's remember that each child's light, though it did not shine long, illuminates our lives to this day."

Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children's hospice Julia's House

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