Q+A with Dr Paul Howat

10 September 2020

On R U OK Day 2020, we chat with Wellbeing Working Group Chair Dr Paul Howat.


What does R U OK Day mean to you?

PH: I feel every day should be RU OK day, not once a year.  We should be in tune with others around us, how they seem, making it normal to ask them how they are travelling.
What do you do to ensure a psychologically safe and supportive workplace?

PH: For a psychologically safe workplace everyone needs to be able to speak up for patient safety.  If they don’t feel safe, this won’t happen. There are years of hierarchical impediments to that which need to be torn down.  Bullying is still a problem.  Trust, respect and teamwork are the three essential components.  It’s also hard to feel safe and supported if workplaces aren't staffed to deal with the workload, then people just resort to caring for themselves - they won’t have any emotional capital to spend on anyone else.  For me it’s about flattening out the structure, using first names for everyone, being available, being kind.  Being self-aware is important too - be curious about how you are feeling, and why - and that can help you in your personal interactions.  After a big event, it’s essential to check in with people and see how they are doing.  Team debriefs are a great way of sharing how everyone feels.
How do you ensure to check in with and make time for your team?

PH: It’s hard in Covid times in Melbourne to check in with everyone.  I will check in with the team several days a week at handover even if I am not on call, for a few minutes, to see how people are travelling.  Email is essential for distributing information but hopeless for checking in with everyone.  We have WhatsApp groups for various discussions, which is more useful than email.  Strong relationships with midwifery and nursing colleagues are vital, because we are all one team, and not “us” and “them”.  The other thing I have done, which I have been criticised for (I think unfairly) is sharing vulnerability - we are all in this together, and I think it’s ridiculous to think you are outside of what everyone is experiencing just because you have a leadership role.
What do you do if someone raises concerns to you?

PH: If someone raises concerns with me, it depends on what they are concerned about.  If it’s clinical, I will listen, establish the facts, investigate, speak to all the relevant staff and return back to the person who has raised the concerns for feedback and hopefully a plan they are happy with.  If it’s one person complaining about another, I have learned to invite them to solve the problem by “cup of coffee” type conversations with each other, as I’ve realised trying to solve clashes between individuals doesn’t really solve anything for long.  They need to learn to listen and work constructively so they can reach a point where they can establish common ground, head towards the same goals and communicate effectively.  People complaining about other people is quite common in complex, large workplaces, and although I think I am an effective mediator, if people are to learn about themselves and each other, and grow, they need to learn how to resolve their own differences.  I say this with the clear understanding I was once one of those people!  If someone raises a concern that's out of my power to resolve, I will promise to seek help from someone who does have that power, and make sure I feed that information back to the individual, as a solution or at least as regular updates.  Sometimes there is no immediate solution, but listening to and validating what someone has to say is really important.



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