What working with dangerous criminals taught me about psychological safety

Lucy Vallis photo resized and cropped

Lucy Vallis, Head of Health, Safety and Wellbeing at Save the Children UK, has a unique insight into what it takes to feel psychologically safe, given her work with dangerous individuals in high security hospitals, like Broadmoor; a fascinating perspective which she’s going to share at the forthcoming Watercooler Event.

This article is based on a conversation with Vallis and covers a broad range of topics including traumatic work environments, her learnings on her mental resilience limits, the importance of positive intent and the dangers of loss of a sense of self.

Her varied career background has taken her from forensic mental health to psychiatric hospitals to the civil service with roles covering responsibilities from human rights to gender policies. But the common theme amongst all these roles is her interest in wellbeing, which is what has brought her to work at the children’s charity today.

We caught up with the award winning wellbeing professional to find out more about her forthcoming session, and what she brings to one of the buzziest topics in wellbeing, psychological safety.

You’ve got such an interesting career background that has taken quite a few twists and turns. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

Well, in the early years of my career, I thought I might like to be a criminologist. My first job was working for the Home Secretary whose department was responsible for managing the mental health offenders, which are the section 41 patients, which is forensic mental health. I was in an out of high security prison hospitals like Broadmoor and Rampton working on cases in the DSPD Unit, which stands for ‘dangerous and severe personality disorder’.

But what I realised was that I don’t have the mental resilience for that. I found that my worldview started to change. Whereas before I always thought of people in a more positive light, believing most people act from positive intent, this started to shift to feeling that most people don’t have good intentions and the world is quite dangerous.

How did that kind of work affect your mental health, then?

It was vicarious trauma and it did have an impact, so I realised it wasn’t for me and decided to move on. And that’s the message I give to people today if they have a feeling that their job is not ‘for them’; you don’t have to do it, there are many other things you can do. I think this feeling occurs a lot in people working with challenging communities and what can happen is you become enmeshed in a (negative) narrative. You start to lose your sense of self, as I did.

You have recently been diagnosed with ADHD. Has having this diagnosis helped you in any way, or improved your wellbeing and sense of self?

It’s like a lightbulb has been turned on when looking at my life now. It explains to me lots of things that have happened to me, all the twists and turns. For example, why I couldn’t finish my University degree, why I did my A-Levels then dropped out. I just lost interest and couldn’t concentrate, so went off and did other things.

You said you’d always taken an interest in wellbeing at work but it became your career from 2017 when you headed up a wellbeing team in one of the Home Office departments. What was that like?

When I started, there was no structure at all. It was just piecemeal bits and bobs all over the place. So my job was to pull it all together and create a strategy which matched the organisation’s overall strategic direction which I did, and ended up winning a Home Office award for ‘most influential person’.

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In your experience of working in all these different, sometimes difficult environments – how good do you think we are, in organisations generally, at creating psychological safety?

We are getting better. I felt most psychologically safe when I worked in Brussels back in 2009 [as gender policy officer for Mental Health Europe] and it was accepted as part of your journey to make a few mistakes. Real bloopers, even, which was fine!

There was no fear of reprisal, no fear of judgement. It was it was supportive. Managers would approach with the attitude ‘how can I help you make this work?’ rather than ‘you need to come back to me when it’s done’. (For more tips on creating psychological safety in teams, see this article here)

What’s your view on measuring psychological safety?

It’s not something that should be measured. It’s something which is grown organically, like a golden thread naturally weaving through an organisation.

The problem with organisations is they try and force things, like positivity. This ends up backfiring because you can’t force these things.

Is there anything you’ve noticed about psychological safety and creating it at Save The Children?

Yes. Teams which show high levels of psychological safety have managers that are able to have honest conversations, without one person becoming upset, hurt, distressed or feeling judged.

In these teams the manager has that crucial positive intent, which the team member can pick up on. They’ll say things like: ‘this is what we want to do. This is what we need to do. We’re going to get there and it’s not just down to you’.

You’ve mentioned positive intent a few times, what advice do you have for line managers wanting to convey positive intent?

You need to be genuine because people see through falseness. You also need to recognise that you’re not born a manager. When your mother was in the delivery suite, the midwife didn’t hold you up pronouncing ‘it’s a manager!’

We are human beings first off. We learn how to be good managers. And creating psychological safety is about having that human approach which conveys positive intent in itself.

You also mentioned trauma earlier. I’ve heard wellbeing experts say that it might be harder for somebody that has experienced trauma and not processed it to feel safe, no matter what a line manager does. What do you think?

That’s very true. If people have previous trauma they are invariably going to feel unsafe in a situation that they can’t control. If you’re working in a hierarchical organisation in particular, you’re going to feel out of control. It might be harder to feel positive intent from colleagues. If possible, it’s important to address trauma early and it’s really important that the organisation provides support for that.

So you see trauma as an organisational responsibility?

It’s both: the responsibility of the individual and the organisation. This dual responsibility for wellbeing is where Save the Children is really breaking ground and encouraging a sense of agency (more on this soon, in a future article).

An employee has to take some responsibility for their own wellness. That could be saying to the organisation, ‘this is what I this is what’s happening to me right now’. So employees have to have insight. They also have to take action. It needs to be a two-way street. You can’t have an employee going into work and thinking their wellness is solely the employer’s responsibility; that is a highway to nowhere.

To meet Lucy in person, and contribute to the conversation about one of the buzziest topics in the industry – psychological safety – come along to our sister event the Watercooler on April 25th and 26th, 2023. 

Lucy is appearing on a panel talking about creating a culture of psychological safety, including the critical role of line managers and leaders.

The Watercooler, named in recognition of those crucial moments of connection between employees, is a free to attend conference and exhibition which demonstrates that wellbeing IS the future of work. For themes that were ‘hot topics’ at last year’s event, like line manager wellbeing, see this article.

Taking place at Excel London, The Watercooler event is where you can gather to join ideas together, make connections, learn from peers’ experiences and find the right solutions for your organisation – whatever its size and shape.

For reasons why this is a must-attend event for anyone interested in workplace wellbeing, see this article here

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