Future leaders: a healthy internship

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A 7 minute read.

Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others. That cabin crew safety announcement has become a regular mantra when talking about the value of self-care in health and wellbeing. It’s particularly pertinent to healthcare professionals, who can often find themselves burning out due to the effort they put into caring for others. This importance of managing and prioritising one’s own wellbeing as a healthcare worker is a message that F1 doctor Opusdei (Opus) Aghanenu from Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust is passionate about sharing. “You need to be in the best frame of mind to be able to help others,” she points out. “If you’re not rested, if you’re tired or hungry, you aren’t as much use to your patients or team members.”

Having just graduated from her medical studies, Opus recently undertook a six-week internship with the Nottinghamshire Healthcare Staff Health and Wellbeing team, facilitated through the 10,000 Black Interns Programme. This has given her more insight into the area of wellbeing leadership and support for NHS staff. “Most students do something clinical, but I wanted to explore the leadership side and get a different perspective,” she says. While she already intuitively understood the importance of wellbeing, the internship helped to crystalise her knowledge and give her confidence in championing wellbeing for those around her as well as focus on her own.

“From my clinical experience, I know what happens when health and wellbeing is not good, with burnout and poor work-life balance,” she explains. “The most powerful thing I’ve taken from the internship is a sense of empowerment: looking after yourself to look after others, whether that’s patients or other members of the team. If we want to inspire others to have good health and wellbeing, we need it in our own team.” To aid her own sense of wellbeing outside of work, Opus makes sure to dedicate time to exercising at the gym, salsa dancing, spending time with friends and baking.

She adds that the internship was good timing as it preceded her going into her first medical role: “I’m more confident about taking breaks or rounding things off at the end of the day, and more confident in telling others to do the same.” However, being the person pushing the importance of self-care is not always easy, she admits, in environments where teams are often over-stretched and under-resourced.

“You have to balance needing staff with the need to encourage people to look after themselves more, rather than giving too much of themselves, burning out and taking a longer period of time off,” she says. “It’s down to the culture. At first, I was worried I didn’t look like a team player if I was going home on time, but now we have a culture where we all look after each other, take breaks and go home on time… It can be tough to be that person [pushing for it] if no one else is.”

Opus is a self-described ‘problem-solver’ (“I like to fix things,” she smiles), so perhaps it’s not too surprising she took on the challenge of creating a healthier work culture so early in her medical career. “If there’s a problem I want to not only fix it but get to the root of the issue,” she says. That’s why she is so attracted by the idea of leadership, hoping to one day get into a position that will enable her to contribute to fixing systemic and institutional issues within the NHS system. She completed the Edward Jenner Leadership Programme in 2020 and took on a leadership role while at medical school, something she admits was out of her comfort zone at the time.

“It made me more comfortable speaking up,” she says. “I went from not speaking at all in meetings to chairing meetings. In my internship, I was more confident making suggestions; it made me realise my contributions were valuable. It’s never too early to develop as a leader. The tools I got on the Edward Jenner Programme helped me reflect on what it means to be a leader and what sort of leader I want to be. Leadership is about serving other people, not being in charge. Being collaborative, being inclusive – that’s what I’m aiming for.”

As a black woman within the NHS she is also driven by a desire to improve representation at senior levels. “The NHS workforce is diverse, but we need that representation in leadership,” she says. “That would help issues around health inequalities. The people making decisions don’t always have as diverse input as they could do; I want to be that person, providing that input.”

She adds that while initiatives such as 10000 Black Interns have done a great job of attracting black talent into the pipeline, the problem is often retaining people from diverse backgrounds. “The higher you get, the less diverse the leadership looks,” she says. “Retention is the hardest bit as it requires a change in culture and mentalities.”

“That means celebrating rather than just tolerating diversity, and tackling racism directly, as well as avoiding tokenism. It’s more than having a day where you celebrate your colleagues,” Opus explains. “We need things to change every day to ensure people feel welcome as part of a team, whatever language they speak or food they eat. And with racism in patients and staff: what are the consequences? If you let it slide, it becomes the culture. When people see that’s how they are treated, they won’t stay.”

While she is not sure yet where her own NHS career will take her, she is interested in healthcare leadership. “Anything is possible,” she says. “I want to see where the journey takes me and hopefully inspire some people too along the way.” With her passion, ambition, and courage, it’s not hard to foresee her achieving both.

Click here to find out more about 10,000 Black Interns programme.

Click here to find out more about the Edward Jenner programme.

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