How Woods Can Mend Our Human Safety Nets

Alan Heeks
Wednesday, 27th June 2018

How being outdoors in the woods and in nature can help preserve and heal people who are at the sharp end of austerity cuts in front line services like the NHS.

All of us depend on front line services: they include health, local authorities, education, care, and a myriad of voluntary sector organisations such as charities, help networks, and community groups. They are a safety net, and as stresses grow for most people, we need the support of front line services more than ever. But most of these services are in a severe squeeze between rising demand and shrinking resources. The level of burnout and staff turnover has risen sharply, and the future outlook seems unthinkable.

So safety nets are getting more ragged, just when they’re even more essential. One good repair strategy is getting front-line staff out into the woods. In this blog, I want to share my own experience, and research which shows why this works.

Nature Fascination versus Screen Fixation

It’s still hard to realise how drastically our ways of living and working have changed in the past 5-10 years, and research on the impacts of these changes is only just appearing. A great overview of this research is the book Your Brain on Nature, written by two doctors at Harvard Medical School.

One of the biggest new stresses most people face is massively increased info consumption via screens. This is happening both in the workplace and in leisure time. Americans now consume about 12 hours of information per day from screen sources, and since 1980, info consumption that is not work-related has increased 350%. In effect, most people are now living pretty continually with information overload, and physiological over-stimulation. Heavy internet users score low on emotional intelligence, and general levels of empathic concern have halved in the past 30 years.

Directed Attention Fatigue describes the mental fatigue and stress which arise from a sustained effort of giving our attention to a task or situation. Now imagine how often your attention is distracted by new information from text messages, emails and so on. The problems of DAF have got far worse in recent years. One antidote to this is more experiences of involuntary attention where there is a degree of fascination in the situation, which is just what nature can provide.

Research shows that a key aspect of nature experiences is that they have “intrinsic fascination”, hence they are an effective counterbalance to many modern stresses. A wood offers an especially intense degree of fascination. Time in nature actually induces positive feelings, which can outweigh stress and anxiety. Many thinkers, such as Thomas Berry, believe that deep empathy with nature is the best way to get human behaviour to change and nourish the planet and this book supports that view.

Junior Doctors: renewal with a campfire

Picture this scene: night has just fallen in a magical wood in April. The owls have started calling. I’m sitting at a campfire with a group of junior hospital doctors. Yesterday they were part of overstretched teams in a large London teaching hospital. Why are they here? They’re not sure: it’s a brave experiment.

Since they arrived at lunchtime, our main aim has been to help them shed layers of stress, and find themselves under it. Being in a wood really helps this process. Doing a simple conservation task is surprisingly effective: easy physical work relaxes them, and we loosen their frame of reference from human survival to an abundant ecosystem in full growth.

In the semi-dark around the fire, deep truths and feelings are shared. This chance to share experiences, to feel witnessed and supported, is so rare, and they grasp it with a trust that touches me:

"Staff teams change all the time – you don’t really know the people you’re working with, and I rarely feel recognised or appreciated."

"I was involved in a serious incident, where something went badly wrong. There’s a rigorous enquiry process, but no one ever asked how I felt, or offered me support.”

"You are at the mercy of the consultants – they can easily bully you, and there’s no redress.”

"I’d rather work anti-social hours, in a very stressful department like A&E, because I feel appreciated by the consultant and I have some real responsibility.” 

Over my 25 years creating the retreat centre at Hazel Hill Wood, I’ve evolved a model of resilience which helps people to learn from ecosystems. The next morning, we walk through the wood, giving the doctors an experience of simple methods they can use in five minutes.

The scale of problems like burnout and skills shortages are severe in most front-line services, and may get worse before they get better overall. However, I have an optimism I didn’t feel two years ago: I’ve seen how much woods can help, and I’m hopeful that we’re on a positive trend deepening human’s communion with Nature.

Nourishing the Front Line

Nourishing the Front Line is a series of one-day workshops that I have helped set up, supported by a grant from Awards for All. These events are at Hazel Hill Wood, a 70-acre retreat centre and educational charity near Salisbury. This wood has proved to be a real catalyst for front line staff.

A typical NTFL day might include managers from a hospice and a care home, the director of a small charity, a GP, and a team leader from a local authority. They were probably more surprised than the facilitators to see how helpful these sessions were, and what a role the wood played. Here are some typical comments:

"I’m so pleased you’re doing this – it’s been amazing. My main takeaway is how to build trust in teams.”

"We’re under such constant pressure at work: it needed a completely different setting like this beautiful wood to enable me and my team leaders to think outside the box, and we believe we can make positive changes.”

For the next phase of front-line work at Hazel Hill Wood, we want to offer a longer programme, with residential workshops, to enable more sustained change. We’ve also realised that the pressure on small front-line teams is even more acute, because they have almost no capacity to support their staff.

So we have just launched a 6-month Action Learning Programme, aimed at managers and leaders of small front-line teams: these could be voluntary or public sector, community groups and social enterprises. The first 24-hour workshop is on October 30-31, and we have grant funding to cover much of the fees. You can see full details of Re-Visioning Frontline Services here.

For more info, see:

www.wisdomtree.uk.net: front-line resilience programmes including Re-visioning Frontline Services

www.naturalhappiness.net: Alan’s ecosystem model and events

www.hazelhill.org: the woodland retreat centre and its programmes

Sept 12: free taster afternoons for Rev-visioning Frontline Services. Book here.

Useful links

Wild camping - getting closer to your surroundings

How connecting with nature can make you better at permaculture

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