Equal human beings - the role of professionals in a struggling system.

Imagine for a moment a world in which everyone who is part of the public sector workforce is treated as an equal human being with the people they serve. A person with the same core needs, the same vulnerability, the same potential for change and growth and development as the people who are recipients of the service they offer. Does this sound a ridiculous starting point? Do you want to say “But of course they are equal human beings. Why should we imagine something that is already the case?”

The current reality is very different. That being young, or old, or disabled, or a criminal, or being in any way vulnerable and in need of care and support makes a person different from the presumably ‘resilient’ or ‘expert’ or ‘qualified’ person providing the relevant service. Whether the paradigm is medical, or legal, or educational, or governmental, or any other established service discipline, our social order has created an othering between the expert and the service user.

In this time of social chaos and collective trauma these already disconnected paradigms are at risk of becoming seriously toxic, as the people who provide services are themselves traumatised, and therefore dominated by fear-state thinking. When the assumptions and the myths that underlie our paradigms arise from a disconnected state of fear rather than a connected state of flow, then the behaviour of those who provide services deteriorates. Fear-state paradigms are mechanistic and rigid and ultimately destructive, based as they are on command and control and craving.

If we want to support our services to recover from the disconnection between the service and the service user, we have to be willing to exercise our imagination, and for more than just a moment. What if, as just one example, we recognise that the only difference in terms of fundamental human needs between a medical practitioner and a patient is one accident, or one virus, or one gene mutation? Then the real difference that exists, that of some years of specific learning and skill development, becomes merely a gift that the practitioner has to offer to others, alongside the gifts of respect and gratitude that patients offer to those who care for them. In a flow-state world this is how medicine can operate, because practitioners are then treated by the rest of us (including their managers, and government), as vulnerable human beings who are equally in need of care and support. Flow-state paradigms are organic and adaptive and sustainable, and based on the creative trio of compassion, curiosity and community.

When we enter into the fear-state paradigms of our traumatised communities, however, medical practitioners find themselves confronted with impossible targets by managers who are themselves driven by targets they can’t meet set by organisations that are equally driven by paradigms of command and control. Then a vicious circle of trauma sets in, and a workforce already depleted by illness ends up ravaged by stress-related conditions and burnout. Pockets of good practice persist where teams or practices are able to support each other in a progressively more hostile environment. And patients equally struggle to provide the appreciation, respect and gratitude that is their contribution to the flow-state service provision.

Can we then hold a space for our public service workforce in which they can be held as equals in need and in potential with the population they serve? Can we enable that act of the imagination in which we stretch beyond the existing myths and paradigms and envisage with those who provide our services a world in which they are valued and nurtured equally with the people they are employed to care for?