Self Care through poetry

By Rebecca Westaway

It’s been tough for the people profession

We’ve played a vital role in ensuring business success throughout the pandemic and done our level best to support our people through some extremely difficult and trying times. We’ve worked on better understanding mental health to be able to support those in difficulty too. One area where we perhaps need to improve is the ability to look after our own wellbeing.

Self-care is key to balancing the many moving parts of our lives. We know this, we’ve read about this – even a casual scroll through our social media feeds usually brings up some simple quote, reminding us ‘we’re good enough’, ‘we’re strong’, ‘it’s OK not to be OK’. Yet work and life often consume so much of our time and often we can feel guilty about setting aside time to devote to ourselves.

That’s why back in 2020, CIPD Manchester Branch launched regular self-care sessions for people professionals. It didn’t take us long to settle on a great name either. HR Cafe evokes a safe and convivial space for people professionals to meet, talk and build good self-care habits into personal and professional routines.

The grounding power of poetry

Back in September, we invited Lisa O’Hare, aka Chief Poetry Officer to join us for an hour of ‘self-care through poetry’. Lisa is a Corporate Tax Advisor but also a writer and poet. She shared how poetry had helped her to navigate some tough times in her life.

Along with so many people, Lisa had to take her life and work online once the country entered lockdown. With her usual outlets no longer an option, Lisa began sharing her writing on social media. As her confidence grew, Lisa started participating in online open mic events.

Lisa’s poetry moved people, and pretty soon, ‘zines, anthologies, online journals and podcast hosts reached out to feature her work. Fast forward to May 2021 and Lisa’s debut poetry collection, ‘Lockdown Life, a Rollercoaster of Emotions‘ hit our bookshelves.

Lisa with her debut poetry collection in print

Engaging the imagination

Lisa set the scene by sharing examples of how poetry engages the imagination and the senses. From the tactile holding of a physical book and the sound of our own voice to focusing our thoughts on things that move us -poetry has the power to ground us.

So how does poetry work in a self-care sense?

Because it triggers parts of the brain linked to reward, emotion, and memory, poetry encourages you to communicate feelings openly. Poetry strengthens overall cognitive health, self-reflection, relieves depressive symptoms, and can help you feel more connected to others.

Reading poetry can move you out of your own world and into someone else’s. There’s something very soothing about repetition and verse. Writing poetry helps you get to the heart of your thoughts or feelings you either don’t quite understand or want others to better understand.

Poetry often calls for a certain amount of vulnerability; sharing deepest thoughts, desires, or challenges. People feel a connection and gain comfort in the knowledge of a shared pain –whether that’s through poetry, prose, or lyrics. Songs will have resonated with you at various times in your life, putting into verse exactly how you’re feeling.

Poetry helps you navigate turbulent times but also acts as a means of celebrating many positives. Poetry can help you find some buried truth about yourself, fellow humans and even the world around you.

A personal choice

Lisa shared some poems she finds particularly poignant, stopping after each to ask us how we were felt listening to them and in that particular moment afterwards. We’ve linked the poems below and recommend you find some time, free from distractions, to sit and listen.

We gained so much from listening to Lisa’s personal choice of poems. If there’s one that stays with me it’s ‘Hold your own’ by playwright, poet, novelist and spoken word artist Kae Tempest. I’ve listened to ‘Hold your own’ countless times and on the advice of Lisa, took time to watch Kae’s incredible performance of Hold you own at Glastonbury. The same poem, recited at different times in Kae’s life and in very different settings conveys very different dynamics; one gently guides us while the other expresses anger, urgency and rebellion. The latter live version is by far my favourite ‘version’ for its raw energy. You can feel and read the charged atmosphere on faces in the audience, bearing witness to Kae’s powerful message.

Poetry in a corporate world

Poetry often feels somewhat out of place in a business setting. Kate Jenkinson, who joined us for the session, talked about her experience as a poet in the corporate world. It was only a few years ago that Kate ‘came out’ as a poet, moved and inspired by Tony Walsh’s powerful work ‘This is the Place’. The poem united Manchester and people everywhere in the face of tragedy, uncertainty and fear (MEN arena bombing 22 May 2017). 

Kate explained that the poet in your business is often the quiet voice that ‘speaks a truth you may not like to hear’. Kate says ‘don’t ignore it, drown it out or cast it aside – that voice could be the one to open a path to powerful inclusion that you had overlooked and didn’t know was ready to grow from inside your business’

‘Now tell me that this isn’t something powerful all businesses should pay attention to?’

~ Kate Jenkinson

Next time someone tells you they are a poet – be curious, appreciate their #neurodiversity – because that’s what it is, and realise that they shouldn’t have to give their creativity away for free, poetry after all is the music of ideas. When we value the poets in our businesses, we start to solve some of the issues our rational brains have created and give everyone’s wellbeing a way to be nurtured.

‘Get me poets as managers. Poets are our original systems thinkers. They look at our most complex environments and they reduce the complexity to something they begin to understand’.

~ Sidney Harman – Founder of Harman Industries

Kate continued: ‘Poetry and business can seem to be opposites that don’t overlap, and often people would be quizzical when I shared with them that this was my way of thinking. The harmful stereotypes of a poet going into a job centre and asking for poet vacancies – and being met with ridicule – were not lost on me growing up’. 

Appreciating the here and now

After a thoroughly relaxing and enjoyable hour, we all agreed that Lisa’s session had helped us to feel calmer and in many ways better prepared to continue our day. We had the feeling we’d somehow found an almost covert way to ground ourselves, that ability to truly connect with and appreciate the here and now. But it didn’t end there. Unbeknown to us, Lisa had taken our shared chat reflections to compose our session’s very own poem, which we’re incredibly proud to share with you.

We Paused with Poetry

We started today feeling blessed and relaxed
Hoping poetry opens the heart, and this is the start of something incredible
Glad to have time away from the everyday grind and be inspired
Energised and positive, curious and eager to learn
Curious about the power of poetry and how to utilise and harness that power
Keen to just unwind and make time for ourselves.
Anxious, happy, dare to hope in this crazy landscape

As we held space to listen…

It made us stop and think…
think about what is obvious
but we forget about on a daily basis…
Wisdom of what we lose in modern-day life
when we should hold on to it
It was invigorating and beautiful being
just here and now

We felt so relaxed

It was absorbing
and soothed mind and soul
It helped us to keep in the moment
rather than think about many things
Making meaning of what is

Like a crashing wave breaking our own thoughts
As we left to continue our day we felt….
It changed things –
it engaged a different part of us,
as we hoped it would.

Our minds are not racing with thoughts anymore
just total mindfulness and feeling
in this moment
(which is rarely happening nowadays in the racing world)

We felt
Learning happened within us
This was a time to sit back and simply listen – fully focused on
what we are hearing and seeing

Now we feel
We want to be true to who we are and how we want to be
We want to share with others
We want to help other’s wellbeing
We feel
Calmer, more anchored, more clear.
Cosy and with feet grounded
Our time together was effective

We feel
Reinvigorated and refreshed

looking forward with relish to the challenges we may face
Re-focused and recharged

and ready to review priorities.

We are smiling
Hungry to read through more poetry
Our heartbeat has slowed,

we are feeling calm.
Gone are those butterflies in the stomach.
The rest of the day isn’t overpowering us anymore.
Worries have shrunk.
That was brilliant,

Poetry is for us.

Listen to our poem recited by Lisa

What you thought and shared

We were bowled over by the positive feedback shared openly following the session.

If you think, like me, poetry is like the nursery rhymes you remember from school, then prepare to be amazed. We were able to kick back, relax and have some fun with words and phrases. The world was a different place, full of wonder and happiness throughout this session. It was so insightful and thought-provoking. If I can do it, then those who know me will reinforce that anyone can and should be giving it a go.  

~ Paul Hamlin via LinkedIn

Wow wow wow – When your professional institute is at the forefront of what matters to creative folks and how words can make a difference – unique events like the HR cafe happen quietly and make the earth move. I loved the CIPD Manchester event today hosted by Paul Hamlin with the engaging words and wisdom from speaker Lisa O’Hare your Chief Poetry Officer, enabling wellbeing through poetry. Congratulations to everyone involved, and highly recommended!

~ Kate Jenkinson via LinkedIn

Last Tuesday, CIPD Manchester branch hosted one of my favourite poets (and colleague), Lisa O’Hare. We found out that every one of us is a poet in our own unique way ❤️ This was an excellent self-care and wellbeing session. Poetry is for us.  

~ Marta Davenport via LinkedIn


About Lisa

Lisa is based in North West England and started sharing her writing at spoken word events for the first time in 2019 after writing and performing a play at the Greater Manchester Fringe. Her poems have been published online by Visual Verse, Write Out Loud and Nymphs & Thugs. Lisa has also had her poems featured in anthologies by Printed Words, The Black Engine Room Press and Local Gems Buzzin’ Bards Anthology along with fundraising zines by the Coronaverses Collective and MadWomxn Magazine.

Lisa performs regularly at spoken word events such as Verbose, Speak Easy and Testify and has had two poems featured on BBC Radio Manchester’s Upload hour, including the title poem, Lockdown Life a Rollercoaster of emotions. Cheshire East Libraries also featured the title poem in their National Poetry Day celebrations and Be Braver featured Lisa’s story.

Session hosts

Huge thanks to everyone who joined us for the session and to Paul and Marta for hosting.

The works that moved and inspired us

Kae Tempest – Hold Your own

This work inspires people to be themselves in all simplicity and to live fully and completely. It reminds us we don’t need to amass objects to be someone, nor do we need to continually chase higher social status.  

~ Rebecca Westaway

WH Davies – Leisure 

I chose Leisure as it is a classic that reminds us of the beauty of pausing just for the sake of it. It transports you to a calmer place in very few words.

~ Lisa O’Hare

Tony Walsh – Take this the pen

I chose this poem as it is so welcoming to the world of poetry. Not stuffy and very inclusive, which reflects the world I have found when I have started to share my work. I hoped it would welcome people with no previous experience into the workshop in a fun and accessible way.

~ Lisa O’Hare

Lisa O’Hare – Days Indistinguishable

CIPD and mental health

Caring for people’s mental health is a big responsibility and one that the CIPD takes very seriously. In 2020, CIPD highlighted this by signing up to the Mental Health at Work Commitment. Realistically, who could have predicted how the following 12 months would be for everyone’s mental health, and how vital the work CIPD delivers would be to supporting people?. Brad Taylor, Director of People and OD at the CIPD shares what the Institute is doing within each of the standards to meet its commitment. Read Brad’s December 2020 blog 

‘Why Reading Poetry can make you a better’ Leader by Rosalie Chang 

Dazzle gradually: A poetry anthology for business by the Forward Arts Foundation

Local resources

The Greater Manchester Mental Health Toolkit for Employers helps organisations – whether business, public sector or charitable – support the mental health and wellbeing of their employees. The toolkit was developed in partnership with the Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter, the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership and the Centre for Mental Health.

Location Manchester, England E-mail Hours Our hours vary according to our programme.
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