Amy Parker - 2018 blog posts archive
Organisational Development Business Partner
Amy has stopped her weekly postings, but you can still read her stories here ...
Amy joined Adur & Worthing Councils in December, and will be part of the team until the summer, as maternity cover for Organisational Development within the HR Team.
A positive psychologist, her aspiration is to help everyone at the Councils thrive - in their work, at home and in their communities. She is particularly focused on management and leadership, and her key projects include a motivational programme for all managers, and an innovative multi-organisational leadership apprenticeship.
Outside of work, she loves getting people together, and is involved in Brighton Belles WI and Sunday Assembly, as well as holding big murder mystery parties for her friends.
You can read Amy's archived 2018 blog posts on this page below:
After ten weeks, this is my last blog for Our Stories, Your Councils. It's an ending for me, but, as I step down, I make space for a new beginning - for someone else to tell their stories. Alongside this, it's the end of the old financial year and the beginning of a new one - a cycle that encourages us at the Councils to reflect and to plan. And, of course, it's the start of spring - with festivities and activities marking the end of one season and the beginning of another.
All this got me thinking about endings and beginnings, and how we deal with them as human beings.
It is a well worn saying that “all good things must come to an end”, and this can be hard for us to experience. The most difficult 'ending' for many of us is the death of a loved one, but we often feel emotions of sadness, loss and grief for much less significant endings - the final few minutes of a night out with friends, the last day of a holiday, leaving a job we enjoy, or the bittersweet moments as our children become more independent. It's not all doom and gloom though: a team led by Kristin Layous found that imagining time as scarce increases our wellbeing - that a sense of something ending can help us focus on living in the moment, appreciating the people around us, planning future goals, and creating a greater sense of meaning in our lives. Endings - and even perceived endings - can help us get more from our relationships and experiences.
Beginnings, too, are complex, holding a mix of emotions for us: fear, excitement, optimism and hope. The latter are particularly interesting, as they've been shown to correlate with positive life outcomes, including greater wellbeing, higher levels of achievement and better health; and also because research - primarily by Martin Seligman and Rick Snyder - suggests that they are learnable skills, rather than genetic traits. We can each develop the ability to embrace new things in our lives, and to learn and grow through the changes, opportunities and challenges they involve.
So, as I bid you adieu, I do so by reflecting warmly on the experience of trying to capture my working week and share it in a vaguely interesting way, and I do so with great hope that whoever follows me will bring more interesting and inspiring stories of what we do here in Adur & Worthing.
Thank you so much for reading.
Photo: Yellow crocus flowers coming up through the snow - a new beginning ...
This month, the charity Action for Happiness has been encouraging us to be more 'mindful' - but what does this really mean, and how is it relevant to us at work?
Put simply, mindfulness is a focus on the present moment. It can be practised formally - through a meditative practice - or more casually: stopping to really look at a flower or concentrating on enjoying the taste of your coffee, for example. Founded in the 1970s from Buddhist teachings, it took until the early 2000s for it to become mainstream - and for early adopters such as Google (it's always Google!) to apply it within the workplace.
Studies have suggested that mindfulness holds a range of benefits for us: reduced anxiety, depression and stress; better sleep; an improved sense of wellbeing; and even reduced physical pain. In research specifically on workplaces, Wolever et al found that it decreased perceived levels of stress, and Levy et al, that it increased concentration on memory tasks and multi-tasking; Schultz et al suggest that it results in lower levels of frustration, absenteeism and burnout, and helps to create a better work environment; and work by Davidson and Kabat-Zinn indicates that it builds resilience, through physically changing the way our brain responds to the fight-or-flight response.
Not all research is as clear-cut, of course - some meta-analyses (studies that draw together the results of other studies) conclude that the effects on any of these things are moderate; more - and better - research is always needed. But what is clear is that taking time out from being constantly 'on' is a good thing for our bodies and our minds.
Here at the Councils, we're developing a new Well at Work plan - which will launch this summer and may well involve some mindfulness practices to help us do just that. In the meantime, we in the HR Team have had the Mindful March poster (by Action for Happiness) on our wall, and been trying out some new ideas for everyday mindfulness. Here are are my favourite three, for you to use at any time. After all, mindfulness isn't just for March!:
- Feel the cool of a breeze or the warmth of the sun on your face
- Take an unusual route and notice what looks different
- Put devices away and really focus on who you're with
Photo: Amy with the Mindful March poster by Action for Happiness
What qualifies us to be managers? Most of us become one without any training, and many of us are promoted into a management role simply because we're technically good at what we do, not because we're great at supporting others. This can leave a skills gap - where we're expected to just 'get on with it' - with some of us struggling to give meaningful feedback or knowing how to motivate our team members.
High quality development conversations and a culture of ongoing positive performance feedback are crucial for organisations. Research by Gallup has shown that having a manager that ignores us is worse for our engagement than having a manager who focuses on our weaknesses. And, conversely, managers who give us regular praise make us more productive, engaged and more likely to stay with our organisation.
With this in mind, enabling high quality performance and development conversations is something that we're focusing on currently at the Councils, refreshing our 'PDR' (Performance and Development Review) process to make sure that it's really valuable for managers and team members. Alongside a new structure, we're ensuring that managers are supported in building some key skills: active, empathetic listening; knowing how to ask the right questions; and developing the confidence to deliver (sometimes challenging) feedback with clarity and warmth.
To do this, we're running a three-part course, which all managers - including our Heads of Service and Directors - are taking part in:
- Module one looks at personal development, introducing the principles of coaching conversations and the processes through which we learn;
- Module two is all about communication: listening actively, developing shared understanding, and coaching people towards learning and action; and
- Module three is really practical, looking at how to structure developmental conversations in line with our new process
We're trialling two pilots cohorts at the moment and this week we've been running module two - so I've been spending lots of time away from my desk, scribbling on flipcharts. We have lots of brilliant managers across the organisation, and this course is helping us create even more.
Photo: Amy writing on a flipchart at a recent building brilliant managers session about communication
I've not done a lot this week, and that's because I've been on holiday - enjoying the sunshine and seafood of Palma, Mallorca. I've returned rested and relaxed, buoyed by that 'holiday feeling'. But how long will this happiness last?
The word 'happiness' is incredibly broad and holds different meanings for each of us, which makes it a truly tricky term to pin down and measure. In scientific study, we use the terms hedonic happiness and eudaimonic happiness - or hedonia and eudaimonia - in order to provide some clarity.
Hedonia describes happiness driven by pleasure - the things that make us feel good. To increase our hedonic happiness we simply need to experience more positive emotions - or positive affect - and fewer negative emotions (negative affect). Ways to increase this positive affect include sunshine (which gives us a hit of serotonin), spending time with those we love (oxytocin), learning about new places (dopamine) and enjoying a glass or two of sangria (endorphins). These 'happy hormones' released into our body correlate with positive emotions such as joy, excitement and love.
Unfortunately, the state they create is temporary, and must be reinforced regularly (another drink, a new fact, etc); when something pleasurable happens to us - even something as life-changing as winning the lottery - our happiness quickly returns to a base level. The ups and downs that come with this are described as the 'hedonic treadmill': we end up constantly chasing the short-term 'high' of hedonic happiness, potentially to the long-term detriment of our bodies, our relationships and our lifestyles.
The other form of happiness is eudaimonia, built around Abraham Maslow's concept of 'self-actualisation': the idea that optimal human experience comes through purpose and growth. Like hedonia, eudaimonia is a Greek term, roughly translated to mean 'having a contented soul', 'flourishing' or 'thriving'. This form of happiness is harder won - through living a 'good' life guided by values and ethics; learning through the challenges we face; and tending our health, wellbeing and relationships.
In practice, of course, we all experience and benefit from both forms of happiness. So, when we start to feel like we're on the hedonic treadmill - in my case, when the post-holiday blues start setting in - we have choices. We can try to find the next high (booking another holiday, anyone?!) or we can settle into the challenge of building our eudaimonic happiness.
Photo: Amy enjoying the sunshine and an ice cream in Palma, Mallorca
This week marks National Apprenticeship Week: a time to celebrate apprentices and encourage more people - whatever their age or profession - to consider an apprenticeship as part of their career development. After all, apprenticeships aren't just for school leavers these days: the apprenticeship levy that came in last year covers qualifications up to Level 7 - the equivalent of a postgraduate qualification. Here at the Councils we offer a range of apprenticeships, both to existing team members and to new joiners (opportunities are promoted on our jobs page).
This year, we're focusing on leadership and management, and we'll be launching a Level 5 Operations/Departmental Manager apprenticeship in the summer, which will be open not just to managers from the Councils, but from public and third sector organisations across our place. We hope that by learning together, we can build strong relationships between the leaders of the future, as well as shared approaches to how we lead our communities.
Learning together has myriad benefits. It provides a forum to practise cooperation and collaboration; creates shared values, cultures and behaviours; prompts us to support and encourage each other; and builds a sense of psychological safety - which in turn helps us to learn better.
Psychological safety is the feeling that we can be ourselves without negative consequences. It results in us being happy to speak out, make suggestions and ask for help, without fear of being judged, which is particularly important for organisations tackling complex challenges.
Learning together also increases our 'generative capacity': our ability to combine ideas in new ways, enabling us to come up with novel solutions. It makes problem-solving easier and quicker, producing energy and positive emotions that broaden and build our individual and organisational abilities, and generating resources that would, or could, not have been created by an individual alone.
By inviting partners from organisations across Adur and Worthing to join us on our Operations/Departmental Manager apprenticeship, we hope to harness these benefits for the challenges we face and the people we serve. Just as importantly, though, we'll be providing those who take part with the next step on their own career paths - which is definitely something to celebrate this Apprenticeships Week.
If you'd like to find out more about the cross-organisational Operations/Departmental Manager apprenticeship we're running, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: People working round a table taking notes
The snow this week has meant that I've spent two days working from home.
For the sceptical, 'working from home' translates to 'sitting in your pyjamas with the cat and watching re-runs of Friends', but for those of us adult enough to manage our own workloads it's more accurately described as 'time to get stuff done'.
My first day was brilliant: I planned out my projects for the spring, created a 'map' of the development opportunities available to people across the Councils, and managed to get done the e-learning that's languished at the bottom of my to-do list for weeks.
But on day two, I stumbled; I felt disconnected, lethargic and unfocused. What was going on?
Those of you who have read my previous blogs will know that the study of human relationships is something of great interest to me. So it's probably no surprise that the answer lies in social connections.
By spending two days away from colleagues and the buzz of the office - as well as hiding indoors in the evening - I had started to erode my own wellbeing.
In a 2008 study, the team at Gallup - a research agency in the US - explored the connection between 'social time' and mood, tracking the emotions of 140,000 people against the number of hours they spent with others. They found that at least six hours a day connecting with other people minimised stress and maximised wellbeing; and that even three hours socialising reduced the risk of having a 'bad day' to just 10%.
Loneliness has been shown to be incredibly bad for both our short-term and long-term health, making us feel exhausted and burned out, and contributing not just to anxiety and depression as we might expect, but to physical conditions such as heart disease, stroke and dementia.
Of course, in practice the need for social connection varies from person to person: I'm an extrovert, which means that I get energy from being with other people; an introvert, incidentally, is not someone who is shy, but who gets energy from being alone. So, I know I need to prioritise spending time with others - I just sometimes forget.
Working from home has lots of benefits for productivity and concentration, but for me, one day a week is quite enough. Even though the cat will miss me.
Photo: Amy's work colleague, Arthur the cat
I’ve really struggled to write this blog.
Partly, to find the time - my inbox is overflowing, I’ve got projects to push forward, and colleagues from across the organisation are asking for my input on everything from financial planning to exercise bikes; partly, to find the headspace - when everything is moving at 100 miles an hour, it’s hard to switch into a reflective task, to share something interesting and to be vaguely eloquent about it.
I toyed with various topics, reviewing the things I’ve done in the last week, and being unable to settle into any of them. Should I talk about leadership? About coaching? About performance & development reviews? What about apprenticeships? Project Management? The pros and cons of working from home? These are all good topics (which I may well use over my next few blogs…), but nothing felt right. Which made me think - maybe the answer was staring me in the face, and I should just write about being busy.
Busyness has become the norm - perhaps even a badge of honour. When asked by friends how we are, we often respond ‘oh, you know, busy, busy!’ as if busyness somehow denotes success and competence. In reality, we often feel overwhelmed, on a constant hamster wheel of work, chores, family and friends - with the only ‘respite’ being a couple of hours binge-watching box-sets on Netflix.
In our ‘always-on’ culture, we struggle to calm our overstimulated minds, feeling like doing nothing is somehow morally wrong. We align our lives - not just our work - to an ethic that, espouses hard work, discipline and frugality over rest, relaxation and pleasure.
But what’s the alternative? How can we reclaim our selves from the cult of busy?
There is no easy answer (apologies if you thought I’d be ‘solving’ Western culture in 500-word blog) - but there are several things we can do to slow things down and make some space for ourselves. Here are my top three:
A walk in the spring sunshine does wonders for our wellbeing, reconnecting us to our role as human beings - not machines - and providing us with an opportunity to practise mindfulness through both movement and appreciation. Feel your breath, stretch your legs, and enjoy the sound of bird song.
Resist the TV
Passive activities such as watching television very rarely result in us experiencing ‘flow’ - a state of effortless concentration and enjoyment, which is really good for our long-term wellbeing. If you have two hours of leisure time, use them for something you’ll find more rewarding: reading, doing something creative, or connecting with friends and family.
And finally...stop talking about being busy
In conversations with colleagues and friends, ban busy. We’re all ‘busy’ these days - and by talking about it as something to be proud of we perpetuate the myth that success is equivalent to overwhelm. Culture change happens one conversation - and one action - at a time. And if we work together, we can escape the cult.
Photo: Papers and computer on a desk
We're a mixed bunch here at the Councils - accountants, museum curators, administrators, refuse collectors, lawyers, housing advisors, porters, and coastal surveyors ... the list (and the diversity) is seemingly endless. But there's one thing that connects us all - we all work in public service.
Earlier this week, I met with a group of colleagues to explore how we could provide better service - both to our community and to each other internally. How could we listen more to the people we serve? How could we get it right first time? And how could we communicate more proactively? The ideas we came up with will lead to work across the organisation to help us serve each other - and the everyone in Adur & Worthing - more positively and consistently.
This session got me thinking about serving others, and the benefits for our own happiness. Socially, we're encouraged from a young age to be kind to others and to share; religious and philosophical teachings implore us to be generous and compassionate; and offering a helping hand often simply feels like the right thing to do ethically and morally.
Sometimes, though, it can seem hard when we're busy, have our own problems, or feel like what's being asked of us is simply 'not our job'. Happily, science has some further encouragement for us: undertaking acts of kindness has been proven to increase our own health and happiness.
A team led by Sonia Lyubomirsky at the University of California found that undertaking five acts of kindness one day a week for six weeks significantly boosted participants' 'subjective wellbeing' (a popular scientific measure of 'happiness'); research at the US Government's National Institutes of Health found that giving to others prompted a state of euphoria - a 'helper's high' of endorphins in the brain; and various studies on volunteering suggest that altruism can contribute to a longer, healthier life.
By consciously choosing to serve others, then, we can build our own wellbeing. Which is good news for all of us in public service.
Photo: Teamwork - six hands holding hands
In big organisations (such as the Councils) it's very easy to keep our heads down and do our own work, in our own departments - and to never really know (or care) what goes on in the office next door. Particularly in challenging times, we are prone to sticking within the confines of our safe and comfortable silos, using our heavy workloads as a reason not to peek above the parapet at the bigger picture - in case yet another thing to do comes our way.
Ironically, it is in times of hardship that working together can give us the greatest value: innovative new ways of doing things, shared solutions to seemingly impossible puzzles, and moral support when we are feeling most stretched.
In his book 'Reinventing Organisations', Frederic Laloux posits that “there are two fundamental ways to live life: from fear and scarcity or from trust and abundance”. This week I'd like to share the 'systems leadership' approach we've been exploring - to help us as individuals, teams and an organisation to move from fear to trust, and from a sense of scarcity to a feeling that there are at least some things we have in great abundance.
Organisations have traditionally been perceived as great machines, where we each (as tiny cogs) play our part - but this model is outdated, and doesn't serve us well in our contemporary, complex society. People are human beings - not cogs - with values, cultures, contexts, assumptions and conflicting views. We're just not that simple.
Instead, we can think of organisations of living 'systems' - groups of people and projects that are constantly changing, diverse and unpredictable, where shared purpose keeps us engaged with our work, not control and measurement. Within a system, we have scope to use our skills, knowledge and strengths in new ways; to break free of our silos and participate in projects that are interesting to us; and to reach out to colleagues to offer support, peer-to-peer learning and friendship. And - here's where the real game-changer comes in - the system doesn't really have organisational boundaries. By expanding our thinking outside of a rigidly defined 'job' and framing our roles instead as 'purpose', we are able to embrace the connections and overlaps with colleagues across the public, private and third sectors. Then we can truly work together on the big picture - and that is surely the best thing for the communities we serve.
Photos: Shared Leadership event, Shoreham Centre, 1st February 2018
'Wellbeing' is a funny old term; it's hard to pin down and even more tricky to define. What we can pretty much all agree on, though, is that our mental or psychological health is a key component of being or living 'well'.
For me, there's a real difference between 'mental illness' and 'mental health': the absence of mental illness doesn't mean that we are mentally well. If you like, think of mental illness and mental health as two separate scales: minus ten to zero is mental illness, and the aim of treatment such as antidepressants or CBT is to get us back to zero; and mental health is zero to ten - a scale that all of us can work on to help us feel as psychologically 'well' as possible.
Various scholars (for example, Carol Ryff and Martin Seligman) have explored ways of doing this - researching the 'levers' we can pull to build our own wellbeing. These studies have inspired toolkits such as Action for Happiness's Ten Keys to Happier Living - a brilliant resource for those of us wanting to develop our own and others' mental health.
I'm writing about this today not just because it's an interest of mine, but because it's Time to Talk Day - an awareness day designed to get us all talking about mental health (and mental illness!) Here at the Councils, we're marking the day with our teams in two ways: with conversation starters and tips cards in kitchens across the organisation, encouraging people to connect with each other and talk about their experiences; and through launching a Mental Health First Aid programme, training people from each of our services to better support colleagues, friends and family who are experiencing mental health challenges.
From a mental health perspective, connecting with others has numerous benefits, and from a mental illness point of view, every interaction can be a lifeline. So, your homework today is to have a conversation about mental health - wherever you like, with whoever you like. Just make the time to talk.
Hi! I'm Amy, and my role is to support everyone at the Councils to work at their best.
On a day-to-day basis, this means I develop big organisation-wide learning and development programmes, as well as making sure everyone has access to the industry- and role-specific training they need.
My background is in positive psychology - the study of human flourishing. Whereas 'traditional' psychology is all about illness, positive psychology is about 'wellness': how we can all live the best lives possible.
It's not about being happy all the time: if we suffer a bereavement, sadness can help us to grieve, and if things are unjust, anger helps us to bring about change; instead, it's more about exploring and understanding the human experience, with all its ups and downs, and trying to make the best of it.
I'm particularly interested in the role of relationships and community for our wellbeing.
Way back in the 1940s, Abraham Maslow suggested that we have a psychological 'need' for closeness with others, and almost all models of wellbeing conceived since have included a dimension related to social connections.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development - the most extensive study of lived experience that we have - has found that it is primarily the strength of our relationships that defines the quality of our life. And loneliness has been found to be as bad for us as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So, a sense of belonging is pretty important.
I've lived in Southwick for almost a decade now, but it struck me as I started this role that I've never really considered myself part of the Adur 'community': working and socialising in Brighton, my sense of belonging was anchored firmly to the east.
As I've settled into my new role, though - and got to know my new workplace - things are changing.
I'm relishing the views over the River Adur from the train; I have a favourite charity shop, just down from Worthing Town Hall; and I've just excitedly discovered the cafe on the end of the pier.
I'm taking 'ownership' of the people too: my team in HR have made me so welcome, everyone I've met across the organisation has been open and helpful, and when I see the waste collection team out of my road, I have to resist waving at them all - from my very first day I've felt part of something.
So, the other day, when the man at the railway station asked “what do you want to go there for?” when I got a season ticket to Worthing, my hackles rose. It seems that, after ten years, my sense of belonging in Adur and Worthing might finally have set in.
Photo: View of the footbridge over the River Adur at Shoreham-by-Sea
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