As we seek to rebuild and revive our vibrant City of London community spirit, this autumn The Royal Exchange has partnered with the charity Mind in the City to explore mental health and the important role relationships, conversation, connection and community play in wellbeing. Here, we talk to Deirdre Barr, a retired nurse who recently returned to the NHS as the director of operations at the Nightingale Hospital London – where her role included making sure the hospital was built and operational in just nine days – about how she maintains a sense of purpose and a positive state of mind.
What activities have you found to be the most conducive to maintaining good mental health through challenging times?
I go for regular walks in country parks with friends. I like exploring new ones, and places that are close by, but which I have never taken the opportunity to visit. Following lockdown, I have definitely learned the importance of getting outdoors more.
Do you have any advice on how to find a healthy work-life balance?
I changed the way I worked a few years ago, in order to find a better work-life balance. Having worked in the NHS since 1975, I found that as I became more senior in management, the expectations and workload increased. I was regularly working 14-16 hours a day, taking work home and doing on-call. I wanted to have a better balance, so I became self-employed as a management consultant, going into hospitals to work with them on delivering services in a different way.
How have you filled your time since retirement?
I have undertaken voluntary work since I was 12 years old — initially with St John Ambulance, which was when I decided to become a nurse. While working as a nurse in the NHS I also joined the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps as a volunteer, where I served for 28 years, before returning to volunteering with St John Ambulance. I am the regional clinical manager for London and South Region. I look after all our healthcare professionals, who provide clinical support to our amazing volunteers.
I have a holiday place near the sea, which is my go-to happy place
Tell us about your recent role as director of operations at London’s Nightingale Hospital, and what that experience was like.
On 23 March I was just leaving for a very early meeting with St John Ambulance, to discuss how we could support the NHS with the Covid crisis, when I was asked if I would take on the role as director of operations at London’s Nightingale Hospital. That afternoon, I attended a briefing at Excel in London and met some of my former army colleagues who were assisting the build. This was the start of a frantic period of activity getting the hospital built in only nine days. My days were long, working from 7am to 10 or 11pm daily for 2 weeks. I lived in a hotel close to Excel and only returned home for about 36 hours to do my washing before heading back to the hotel. It was great and humbling to work with amazing people at Nightingale – the military, NHS, Princess Royal’s Volunteer Corps, St John Ambulance, facilities, builders and support staff; who were all focused on supporting the people of London with this key mission.
How important is a sense of community to you and what is yours?
Community has always been important to me, from my work community at the NHS to The Company of Nurses – a community of people with similar backgrounds who share similar interests and experiences – and my home community in Beckenham. During lockdown a group of my neighbours set up a WhatsApp group to support each other, and to ensure that the older residents were not isolated. We used it to check in with each other and see if anyone needed supplies. I was at home for the final Thursday NHS clap, where my neighbours all came out to join in.
What activity always puts you in a good mood?
Visiting the countryside or the coast. I have a holiday place near the sea, which is my happy place.
Who is your go-to person when you need to talk about a problem or challenge you are facing?
I have various friends who I am happy to go to, and I am fortunate to have a family who are always there for me. I am from Derry in Northern Ireland and am part of a large family of nine siblings. We have a close relationship, even though we are split between England and Northern Ireland. They were obviously anxious about me undertaking the role at Nightingale Hospital London, but understood my decision to do so. I did not really talk about the hospital in detail as living and breathing Covid day in, day out, I just wanted some normality. I caught up with them on my days off, through a WhatsApp group where there appeared to be some sibling rivalry on who was baking the best cakes!
What is your daily mantra for maintaining a healthy mind?
Be grateful for your physical health.
Deirdre Barr is a retired nurse who was recently the director of operations at the Nightingale Hospital London. She is a Lifetime Foundation member of The Company of Nurses, which was recently recognised as a Company of the City of London – a vital step in its journey to become a livery company.
The Royal Exchange’s local Mind network – Mind in the City, Hackney and Waltham Forest – offers a range of innovative and collaborative services to support people’s mental and physical wellbeing, resilience and recovery. Click here for further information about how to access this local service, make a donation or find out how you could help with campaigning, volunteering and fundraising
Mind in the City, Hackney and Waltham Forest is part of the national Mind network, which provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. If you, or anyone you know, is experiencing difficulties, visit mind.org.uk to access information about a broad range of topics and services, designed to help you overcome the challenges of this difficult time
Visit The Royal Exchange this autumn to celebrate the vitality of community and rediscover the joy of sensory experiences within our welcoming boutiques and eateries. Read more about our Reconnect campaign here and let us know how you are reconnecting with the world on Instagram @theroyalexchange and Twitter @rexshopper