NHS Heroes and the Kindness Pandemic


It’s 8pm on Thursday night and the sound of palms slapping and utensils banging ricochet down the street as my neighbours and I gather on our doorsteps once again to ‘clap for carers’. Nearly two months into lockdown this weekly salute to the health and social care heroes of the pandemic is still going strong – saucepans of England have never seen so much action and key workers have never been held in such high esteem.

I love the NHS. I love Social Services. I love charities and the public sector, and I’ve worked within all three for several years now. Am I a hero? A cape-clad, superhuman vigilante for social justice, support for the vulnerable and saintliness? Or do I just know something that the public at large has finally grasped during this time of uncertainty and isolation? Something that key workers across the world have known for a very long time. That kindness is happiness.

Three months ago ‘lockdown’ was something that only happened at secret nuclear facilities or when the pretty one in Prison Break sparked an inmate riot. But in a matter of weeks Coronavirus ripped across the planet plunging populations into a state of public crisis and economic turmoil, and as people lost their lives, jobs, and vague sense of normality overnight we saw a war-time-esque outpouring of community spirit as voluntary groups and isolation support initiatives popped up in their thousands across the globe.

The urge to help vulnerable people spread like wildfire across communities and it seems no person in isolation has been left without countless offers of voluntary support with shopping, prescriptions or a friendly chat.

People are discovering that being a good citizen actually feels pretty great. We’re in a kindness pandemic – and compassion has never been so cool.

The question we’re asking on the NHS wellbeing and community development service I work on, is once the world begins turning again, how can we keep the benevolence momentum going? Back in January local charities where I live in Berkshire were struggling like never before with dwindling volunteer numbers and funding cuts – services were literally shutting down and the community was suffering. Two months later one local befriending service had received over 1,000 volunteer applications from people desperate to step up and help those in need. There are now a phenomenal 750,000 people signed up to the national GoodSam NHS Responder scheme.

Where did they come from and how can we keep them? Many of the Covid-19 response volunteers I’ve spoken to admit originally stepping forwards out of a sense of duty, however several weeks into their support roles and hours spent helping the elderly, sick, homeless and generally vulnerable it’s not a grudging sense of civic responsibility that’s keeping them going – but the immense sense of satisfaction and wellbeing that’s coming from helping others.

Anyone risking their life on the frontline of this pandemic basically deserves a sainthood. But the little-known secret that the key workers we’ve been clapping and painting rainbows for across the nation already know is that having a social purpose feels amazing. That devoting your time to being a decent human and ‘not a dick’ is a magical thing that can have a positive ripple effect across your entire life. Hopefully when all this is over, we won’t forget that.

You don’t have to be a hero or undergo great suffering to reap the rewards that kindness can bring – any small piece of compassion is clap-worthy.

My choice to work in health and social care isn’t one of sacrifice, woe and self-flagellation – my job is satisfying, varied and ultimately fun. I get to help vulnerable people better their circumstances while listening to their incredible stories and getting out and about in the community. I’ve also been yelled at by stressed-out doctors, attacked by a patient’s deranged cat and once walked into a meeting full of important commissioners with my skirt on backwards. It’s not perfect and the work can be tough – but generally I feel privileged to have a job that allows me to feel good about myself, and is never, ever boring.

If it takes a pandemic to shake our communities into weaving compassion into the daily fabric of life then so be it – and long may it continue. And if standing in the road whacking a cheese grater on a Thursday evening helps people to feel good by then I’m all for it.

But you don’t have to call us heroes. We’re here because we want to be.

The kindness conundrum

self deprecation

‘Keep that wine flowing – when you’re drunk, I’m funny,’ crowed the compère at a recent comedy night, and the crowd roared with laughter. That wasn’t the only point in the evening that his self belittling quips drew snorts and guffaws – in fact each reference to his beer gut, hair loss and general inadequacy with women seemed to elicit even louder applause. Our shiny-headed host was using the time-old art of self deprecation to bring the funny and connect with us through something we can all identify with – putting ourselves down.

Everyone has an inner critic – and if you suffer from depression and/or anxiety I’ll bet you’re particularly vulnerable to self flagellation. I’m definitely no stranger to inverting the finger of blame back at myself should the occasion allow it. Didn’t get that job I applied for? Must be because I’m a horribly inadequate person. Even if there were 600 other competitiors.

In an economy where creative opportunities are slimming down at terrifying speed, the spectre of self doubt is never far. It’s easy to take job rejections, ignored pitches and a general dearth of prospects as a personal hit – assuming it’s a lack of talent holding you back, rather than a lack of luck.  And it’s not just us mere mortals that have self deprecation demons to wrestle with.

King of neurosis Woody Allen was once quoted saying: ‘I never make a film I’m not disappointed in’. Perhaps it’s this level of self criticism that’s kept him producing at unfathomable pace for nearly 60 years, but I have to wonder just how much inward whip cracking is constructive. Twenty minutes into writing this piece I’m already starting to despise my inarticulate scrawlings; but I know that won’t help me reach a Camus-esque conclusion. Watch this space.

Is it really so difficult to practice self compassion? Random acts of benevolence towards others are everywhere – as shown by artist Michael Landy’s project Acts of Kindness. Aiming to eventually display and celebrate examples of everyday generosity and compassion on the tube, the site ended up being flooded with touching tales of rush hour thoughtfulness. Then there’s the Coca-Cola’s campaign ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, which spotlighted a rabble of people caught on camera doing lovely things for total strangers – from a woman who high-fives everyone she sees, to a secret gardener.

We’re a fairly caring, sharing and squishy bunch, I’d say. So how about redirecting a morsel of that kindness back inwards? It may even help with your career, apparently.

Self compassion can actually lead to higher levels of productivity and a higher likelihood of improving performance after failure. Maybe now’s not the time to tell prospective employers that you’re this century’s answer to Orwell, but weeping into your pot noodle because your portfolio ‘isn’t good enough’ to land that publishing deal eight million other writers want clearly won’t help either.

As for me, I’m not sure this article is Pulitzer-prize worthy but it must be at least deserving of a cuppa and a Hobnob. Biscuity nutrition over crippling self doubt? Perhaps there is something to this kindness thing after all.