BLOG: Look After Yourselves People, by Helen Mitchell – Interim Manager/Consultant in policy at Oxfordshire County Council

Posted on 26/10/2022 by Admin.

Look After Yourselves People

I write this blog a few short weeks after World Mental Health Day – a day to advocate for, and signpost to, a greater understanding and appreciation for mental health and how we can all take active steps to improve it. I’ll share in this blog how colleagues within Scrutiny are exposed to particular stresses and how we can take steps to protect ourselves and the scrutiny we facilitate. 

As Scrutiny Officers, we all have to work within systems and frameworks that overtly or covertly govern our behaviours and actions – the law, Nolan principles, statutory guidance and sometimes Ed Hammond’s short form pieces of work.  Following these provides assurance that amid the multiple layers or relationships involved in scrutiny, that we are headed in the right direction. However, the fractious nature of those relationships, misunderstandings of scrutiny and misplaced expectations by stakeholders can make this environment extremely challenging, even when adhering to good practice. This summarises the situation I found myself in during an NHS reorganisation some years ago. 

Let me set the scene.  Imagine you’re a young Scrutiny Officer in the middle of an NHS reorganisation – there’s tension everywhere at officer and political levels – and nowhere more so than at your Health Scrutiny Committee. That tension has been building up over the course of months leading to more frequent and more awkward (take-a-deep-breath-before-picking-up-the-phone) conversations with very senior NHS colleagues. Support from your organisation’s Corporate Management Team is, as a result, at an all time low.  Scrutiny has become the lightning rod for the deteriorating relationships between organisations and for timescales slipping. It is not clear how to progress scrutiny’s interests within its frameworks and at the same time, reduce the impact of tension and general awkwardness.  Furthermore, there are no additional resources to make the task more manageable.   It is – and was for me – a clear recipe for burnout. 

Looking back many years later, I’ve drawn from it a clearer understanding of where the boundaries of my own resilience lie, but also the structural challenges within scrutiny which exist and, without active intervention to manage, can prove intolerable. I’d like to share with fellow scrutineers my three wishes to help us bolster our resilience and stay afloat when things get choppy.

Wish 1: That everyone has access to good quality supervision and management

Good management in this space is one which actively leans in to support staff to face, understand, handle and where needed manage down pressurised situations.  Supervision should provide the requisite time and structure to do this openly and for staff to share their pressures in confidence. 

Wish 2: That everyone creates the time to reflect

Giving ourselves a few moments each day or week to look back on situations and really understand what happened, why and how you would have done something differently is very valuable. There are more developed methods of reflection (available in all good book shops) for those who want to do this in a different, deeper way. 

Wish 3: That we create informal networks of ‘scrutiny friends’ within or outside of your organisation

‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ may seem trite, but when we are so often being blamed for structural problems it is easy to take criticisms to heart. Hearing the experience of others is vital to know that we are not alone in facing these situations, and that they are systemic issues rather than personal failings.  Having a good professional network around you is essential to building supportive relationships, managing situations and improving your own personal performance. 

Helen Mitchell

Helen has held a series of positions in corporate facing roles at local authorities, the NHS and the Civil Service in the North and Midlands.

Most recently Helen was Interim Health Scrutiny Officer, Oxfordshire County Council Jan – July 2022 and is now interim manager/consultant in policy at Oxfordshire County Council.