Field Notes, Reflections and Observations

The investigator is a registered mental nurse but in order to work within the high security hospital, she was first required to undertake additional mandatory training. This was a one-week induction of education and preparation concerning the values and expectations of the hospital; the security measures, hospital policies and procedures, as well as physical training in personal protection and the management of violence and aggression.

This was followed by a four-week placement, where for the first time she experienced the intensity of the day-to-day workings of a high security environment. After one week of training, she was working 14-hour shifts, responsible for her own set of keys, the locking of heavily reinforced doors and high fences, with a mental list of do’s and don’ts—the breach of these potentially resulting in instant dismissal. These, she was told, were things she would get used to.

Her time gathering data was an interesting experience. The first two weeks of attempting to collect data were perhaps the most challenging. She was working across four wards, each with different rules, routines and layouts. To complicate matters further, her role was not one of a ‘typical nurse’—she happened to be a researcher with a background in mental health nursing who had chosen to study for a social science PhD. She had neither a conventional career nor a conventional role. Her background in mental health nursing certainly seemed to help in becoming an ‘insider’; her role as a researcher, however, often meant that she was left on the ‘outside’.

I was struck by the frequency at which individuals would talk to me ‘off the records’ whilst being reluctant to participate or be recorded ‘officially’. Often, this was due to staff concerns at being identifiable. An anxious culture seemed to remain where being recorded was concerned. This was juxtaposed by the interviews themselves. During the interviews I was primarily struck by how open and honestly individuals talked about their personal feelings and emotions in relation to their work; how openly they expressed the fears, anxieties and anguish they face in being at work, and the potential risks and harm they subject themselves to on a daily basis. This was in stark contrast to my initial experiences of working in this environment and my observations of how members of staff behave amongst the general ward milieu. I had grown accustomed to observing individuals bantering, responding apparently fearlessly to alarms and incidents, sitting outside seclusion rooms appearing calm and collected, in what might generally be referred to as ‘masculine’ environment—one of bravado, machismo and an obvious body building culture. To listen to these ‘hidden’ feelings and emotions was therefore a privilege. As a researcher, I was given the rare opportunity to gather rich data within a unique environment. As a nurse and on a more personal level however, I often felt helpless. Despite being aware that individuals were not alone in their feelings, I did not feel able to reveal this to participants at the time of the interviews, for fear of betraying what others had so honestly told me—the ultimate irony being that there were emerging parallels between the tensions I felt in relation to my ‘work’, the theories used to explore institutional contexts and the findings from this study.

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