When we were told the Minister for Health was coming to do an official opening at the hospital, there was a bit of eye-rolling. Poor man, no one had ever met him but everyone had an opinion about him and his ministry. The eye-rolling, however, was not really in relation to him but the event – the inevitable interruption to the service, the speeches, the pomp and ceremony associated with a ministerial visit. We’d been working in the building for over two months, what was there left to open? You can probably guess that ‘sullen teenager’ is my preferred modus operandi for events like this.
Perhaps it was because I was so vocal about how silly I first thought this event was that I was informed that I would also have to say something to the Minister. A fitting punishment. “I want you to speak to him and explain to him about your role, the future, Sláintecare… etc.” Jesus wept. If I had to explain to the Minister of Health about Sláintecare, it didn’t sound like the inequalities of a two-tier health system were going away anywhere soon…
Nevertheless, this task changed everything; mockery was no longer an option – it was now me who was going to rub shoulders with the famous! The morning of the big day arrived and, wearing tights for the first time since the pandemic began, I was beside myself with nerves. (Can anyone ever feel truly comfortable in tights?) My internal hysteria must have been poorly disguised. Perhaps it was the pacing? Or maybe the garbled muttering of prepared remarks that was putting people off.
At any rate I was repeatedly asked to give the Minister of Health “important messages”. In the trades, new apprentices are often given the run around and sent on fool’s errands: “shop for a new bubble for the spirit level” or asked to go next door and ask for “a long stand.” In a similar fashion, I was sent up to check there were gluten-free sandwiches and enquire how long the kettle would have to boil to have enough tea for 50 people. I knew it was nonsense but I was grateful for the kindness.
Everyone had dressed up for the occasion, even those wearing scrubs had make-up on and looked like they’d reacquainted themselves with the hairbrush after a long period of estrangement (No shame, it took me most of the morning to locate my own). Those not wearing scrubs were in pressed shirts, impeccably pleated skirts and very shiny shoes… some people’s hair appeared taller, though I cannot confirm the veracity of this impression. In short, everything that ought to be tucked in was tucked in. We were dressed to impress.
We were ready far too early and the Minister was delayed. All in all, we were standing around, waiting for about an hour, which also helped the nervous energy dissipate… everyone was beginning to feel very silly and just on the verge of being irritated. Certainly there was no longer an inclination towards fawning or being starstruck.
And then he was there! We didn’t anticipate how personable he would be. (Later: “Well of course, what do you expect? He’s a politician.”) But really, Callan’s Kicks just wasn’t accurate on this one. He was affable and the soundbites were charming: to the surgical trainee: “Don’t leave the country!” to the patient who emerged from a treatment room and proclaimed he was off to get his booster shot: “You’ll be immortal!”.
He engaged with everyone and seemed sincere and interested. We were delighted. He hadn’t even pulled the cord on the little curtained plaque before we were declaring the occasion a huge success.
Later in the canteen, an SHO sighed dreamily: “I wish the minister could come every day… everyone is in such a good mood”. It was the same way a child might wish it could be Christmas every day. The visit provided a sense of excitement, occasion, and a reason to dress up. We felt proud of what we were doing and how we were doing it.
In the past two years lots of occasions have been cancelled, especially work occasions. Compared to events with family and friends they are, objectively, less important. This demotion of work events, however, has had the knock-on effect of fracturing the workforce.
In the era where people work from home, some have started jobs over a year ago and have never met their co-workers in person. The workplace is becoming increasingly abstract and personnel increasingly isolated. Work events make employees feel valued and part of a team. Although they are often contrived and sometimes dreaded, everyone feels more bonded to one another after them.
It’s hard to know what the coming weeks will bring in terms of NPHET recommendations. If you find your traditional Christmas party is again cancelled you may want to consider an outdoor activity to do in lieu of a traditional meal or round of drinks – a work hike, a picnic, a walking tour… or a sea swim? Fill some hipflasks with hot chocolate (rum optional) and celebrate each other!