Spreading too thin

In general I’m a frugal person. I buy foods that are reduced because they have reached their best before date and most of my clothes and shoes in the sales. I collect coupons and shop around for good offers. I try to waste as little as possible, and to recycle as much as I can. So I can understand wanting to get good value for money.

On the other hand, I like doing things properly. For example, when it comes to a sandwich, I like a thick slice of granary bread, fresh from the oven, with generous amounts of toppings. As it happens I’m not a big fan of butter or margarine, perhaps a symptom of being overweight in the 1980s and 90s when fat was literally seen as a cause of fat, whilst the carbs underneath were seen as relatively healthy. But whether it is soft cheese and cucumber, avocado and salad, cheddar and chutney, hummus and roasted veg, or toasted cheese and banana, the topping needs to cover the bread, with sufficient depth to make the sandwich proportionate. If the cheese has nearly run out, I’ll have half a cheese sandwich that tastes good rather than a mean whole.

So when it comes to services, I can see the motivation to get value for money, and to ensure that resources are being used in the most cost-effective way. I’ve developed pathways, clinics and groups to meet needs more effectively, and I’m happy to delegate less complex work to less experienced or less qualified staff. I can’t see the justification for paying psychiatrist salaries to deliver therapy, when a member of staff with half the hourly rate can be an equally good (if not superior) therapist. I can see the importance of capping the cost of agency staff, so that this money can be invested in increasing the substantive workforce. And when it comes to staff who are not pulling their weight (my record being a member of staff who had spent a whole year with a caseload of four clients, whilst colleagues in the same job had five times that along with other responsibilities) I can see the need for performance management.

However, there comes a point that too much pressure for efficiency actually makes services less effective. I saw this happen gradually over the 16 years I worked in the NHS. If we cut out all the conversations between cases, all the informal supervision, all the CPD opportunities, the time to bond as a team and to reflect and process information between appointments, then clinicians are less able to be empathic and individualised with clients. If you also give people tougher and tougher cases to work on, expecting faster throughput than with the more mixed caseload that preceded it, and couple this with cuts in admin despite there being more and more paperwork to do, you increase burnout and time off sick. Add some pay freezes, lose a proportion of posts, put people in smaller premises and tell them to hot-desk or become mobile workers and they no longer feel valued. Make it a set of competing businesslike trusts rather than one amazing non-profit organisation, tender out services like cleaning and home visiting to allow them to be done on minimum wage without the terms and conditions of the NHS, allow private companies to win contracts, and keep people in a perpetual state of change, then morale falls. Nobody has any loyalty or job security and it no longer chimes with the ethics of the people who work there.

The sandwich has been eroded down to bread and butter, and then to crackers and margarine, and then to a value brand version of the same that is 30% smaller. It might look like costs have been driven down, but the price is a reduction in the quality of services, and in the wellbeing of staff. It reduces the willingness to go above and beyond that has been the backbone of the NHS, and increases presenteeism – the tendency to feel that you need to be at work longer, and look like you are working harder, without this making meaningful impact on the work you get done. The UK has lower productivity than most other developed nations, perhaps because we have longer working hours, and work expands to fit the time available.

All over the public sector at the moment I see services trying to spread their resources thinner and thinner, and I’m acutely aware that this means they can’t do the whole job. Social Services departments have barely the capacity to maintain their statutory role, so supporting families in need goes by the wayside. Some good staff find other jobs. A proportion of the remainder go off long-term sick, leaving an ever bigger burden on those that remain. Teachers are forced to teach to tests that assess primary school pupils on aspects of English grammar that graduates struggle with that have little relevance to daily life, and squash the rest of the curriculum into less time. Children’s centres, youth clubs and leisure facilities are disappearing at a time when it is clear that parenting support and exercise are critical in improving well-being and decreasing long-term health and social care costs. We’ve been feeling the cost of ideological austerity bite, even before the financial shock of the Brexit vote, so I am struggling to see how things can improve in the foreseeable future, let alone once any steps are made to implement the extraction of the UK from the EU.

It is hard in this climate not to feel overwhelmed by pessimism. Staff are not pieces of equipment that can be upgraded or replaced at the click of your fingers. I can make a plan for how to cover a remit that needs 12 staff with 7, but I can’t then tell you how to do it with 5. I can only tell you that if you want the job doing properly it needs 12, and if you go below 7 it won’t be fit for purpose. If I sticky plaster over the cracks, you can pretend that paying for 5 is enough, and that it is the clinicians who are failing, whilst we burn out trying to do twice the amount of work each. But no matter how hard I work, I can’t be in four parts of the country at once, or do recruitment, service development, supervision and provide a clinical service in a part-time job.

Maybe the problem is that I am stubborn. I won’t just toe the line whilst covering my eyes and ears and going lalalalalalala when it comes to everything that isn’t being done. Like my exit point from the NHS, there comes a time where I’d rather leave than do things badly. And where the only efficiency available for me to recommend that fits the prevailing rationale is to pay two cheaper staff instead of my time. I’m teetering on the edge of the plank they’ve made me walk, and I’m increasingly tempted to jump. Maybe in retrospect they’ll recognise how much was getting done with such limited resources.

Why is there always a can of worms?

I’ve run http://www.clinpsy.org.uk for 9 years now, and built it up to 6900 members, 600,000 users and nearly 10 million page views per year. I’ve put enough hours into that site to add up to more than two years of full-time work, and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. It is an informative, welcoming community that allows people to network and ask questions. It also levels the playing field of information and reduces the impact of personal connections within the early stages of the profession, and I hope that this will in the long-term act to increase diversity in the profession. Over those 9 years, members have written upwards of 135,000 posts on the forum, and our wiki of information and answers to frequently asked questions has been viewed millions of times, with some posts about preparing for interviews, the route to qualifying, formulation, writing a reflective journal, and transference proving particularly popular – the latter having been read over 115,000 times.

In all of that time we have had remarkably little need to intervene in the forum as moderators. We remove the occasional bit of spam, and we have sometimes anonymised posts in retrospect on the request of the author, and from time to time we have to explain to service users that this is not an appropriate place to ask for advice, but we rarely have to warn or ban forum users. I think the total to date is seven banned individuals and one banned organisation. Not bad when we’ve had 10,000+ sign-ups, and 135,000 posts! This is perhaps a reflection of our clear guidance about how we expect users to behave on the forum, and also of the large number of regulars who act as a more informal feedback loop. We also have quite a large number of qualified clinical psychologists who log into the forum regularly and often act to provide information and correct misconceptions. This is a very important function, as the pre-qualification arena can often become an anxiety-provoking echo chamber, where rumours are propagated and exaggerated without being confirmed or refuted. It also allows us to have a (hidden) peer consultation forum, which is a very good place to discuss concerns with peers in a safe environment in which every member is an HCPC registered clinical psychologist.

However,  the few times when intervention is necessary always tell an interesting story. And the strange thing is, that every single time somebody has been a persistent concern on the forum, this has opened a can of worms that makes us worried about wider ethical issues for the same individual. We had someone who was very unboundaried, and at times threatening to their colleagues and other members in the LiveChat space, and transpired to have caused concern with aggressive conduct in real life. We had a member who was somewhat grandiose and wanted to be a moderator, who attempted to delete and vandalise site content. They later had issues in their workplace, with a similar theme of acting beyond their level of competence. One poster lied to persuade successful applicants to share their applications for clinical training and plagiarised them, and when we identified them it transpired they had plagiarised site content into a publication without acknowledgement and had been unprofessional in numerous other ways. Another odd poster used the same username to post topless pictures on another website. And most recently we have had an organisation recurrently attempt to circumvent payment for advertising on the forum by signing up stooge accounts to promote their service, where it would appear that the appearance of an ethical non-profit organisation instead covers a profitable privately owned tour operator.

It has made me wonder whether ethics and professionalism are the kind of thing people have or they don’t, and that show in numerous domains of their life. Or, is the seeming anonymity of an internet forum a place where traits are exaggerated and played out. Either way, the association between inappropriate use of the forum and inappropriate professional behaviour in other domains seems too high to be a coincidence.

Yet the ethical and professional guidance for psychologists has little that applies in our context. We have had to work out our own boundaries amongst the moderating team (we now comprise ten qualified psychologists and a lay member, although many joined the team as APs or trainees). It makes me realise how much unique our position is, on the technological frontier, and how we are learning case by case. For example, we have had to interpret the balance between confidentiality and risk to apply to our unique setting. We settled on a position that is broadly consistent with what I’d do with clients in real life; we would identify and report a member if we felt they were at risk or presented a risk to others, but otherwise aim to respect the pseudo anonymity of using a posting ID, where only a minority of people choose to be identifiable as a specific professional, or in a way that could be recognised in their workplace. Likewise, we have learnt to log everything typed into our LiveChat space, so that we are able to review the usage of particular members, or read the content if a report is made of inappropriate behaviour. I’d like to think that we’ve reached a good place, and have always been transparent in how we behave. It has been an interesting process though, so I’m thinking of presenting some of the ethical dilemmas and our process at the CYPF conference later this year.