One aspect of my work that gives me no end of lessons are the areas of trust and confidentiality. I hold a number of roles that require different levels and qualities of confidentiality, and in order to fulfill this expectation, I need to establish trust. It’s a bit of a long list, but bear with me, as I hope this will come to a coherent point at the end.
Firstly, I run a careers service and, therefore, am responsible for hundreds of student clients and their concerns, which quite often go beyond choosing a career, but ever so often are about ‘what am I supposed to do with my life?’. Fortunately, I have an excellent team of professional careers advisors who carry most of this as I see fewer clients these days. However, the buck stops with me. Confidentiality is not only essential, it is central to our jobs – however, it is a shared one, as the team members help each other in our weekly case conferences.
Secondly, I am a manager of a team of said advisors, operational officers, and their managers. With that, the same level of responsibility applies, just as it does for the student clients – however, I am also responsible for making sure professional and institutional standards are upheld. This is made easy by exhibit a) from above – an excellent team. But it does carry individual needs for confidentiality and occasional moderating interventions.
Further, I am a manager in the wider organisation and get quite frequently asked to help with a variety of HR and employee relations issues, both from the institution, but also by individual staff members. This may include things like disciplinary hearings, appeals, grievances, and probation meetings. This is where things get a lot more complicated, as I have to keep not only the details confidential, but also often that there is an issue at all. They often are quite heartbreaking, as in my experience things are hardly ever ‘clear cut’, but are full nuances, contradictions, and often quite some personal pain for all involved. This is harder to deal with, especially as I cannot speak to anyone about them. In my line managerial role, I have a chance to speak with my line manager – in these cases; I do not have that option.
The last one may seem the most complicated at first: I am both a chair of the professional charity PlaceNet, as well as an elected staff trustee on the board of my university. Here, the legal stakes are highest with regards to confidentiality, as is the public expectation of being worthy of the trust invested in me. However, I almost find this the easiest to deal with. In both cases, I have fellow trustees with whom I can share any concerns. Also, hardly any of the issues move into the big questions about life or personal pain, as they do in my work roles. Not to be flippant, but when trained as a trustee, thinking about adding another layer of confidentiality was important, but the emotional impact is higher in my daily work roles.
But how do I deal with these responsibilities? In short – I compartmentalize: every issue, every complex problem, every concern gets its place in my mind (and for a lack of a better word in my ‘heart’), and there it stays. When I think an issue is ripe for discussion, moving along, or letting lie until action is required, I will do so. Things I cannot share, I do not share, with anyone. The emotional impact I have so far always been able to handle. It probably helps that my upbringing was, as one of my brothers put it more akin to growing up on Vulcan than on Earth. In my family, it was always the better argument that won the never ending socio-political and scientific discourse around the dinner table, not the stronger felt passion or other emotion.
Some of my closer colleagues might recognize that in my work behaviours. My friends, some of them therapists, may find it curious, I hope however not of concern. It does serve me well and enables me to sleep at night, rather than ruminating over issues or conflicts I may have to deal with during the work day. It also fills me with a certain sense of professional pride, as I think it helps me be trustworthy – which is, as a value about as important as it gets for me. So in short, I’ve learnt that my tendency to compartmentalize helps me to gain and preserve trust, and that is key for the work I do.