ETCH is a lively, thriving, colour-bursting organism within the digital consultancy world. I recently joined the team in May this year, and have benefitted from watching the organisation move through some incredibly formative months coming out of Lockdown and into the tentatively opening peri-COVID world.
During the onboarding process I had the spiel from one of its co-founders on the upcoming July ETCH Wellness Retreat, and frankly I was intrigued. Given my background in healthcare, the term 'holistic wellbeing' (used interchangeably with 'wellness') wasn't new to me. It was batted around like a newborn baby gets passed to every possible, willing (and reluctant) relative at a christening. It became a plumb-line against which all care-giving was measured. If we weren't looking out for the 'whole' of the person then we weren't hitting the mark - a near-impossible feat. To see the same word used within the business world fascinated me. What would a Wellness Retreat look like? Could it measure up to all the criteria to be ticked on the enormous list of what constitutes 'wellbeing'? Could a company genuinely meet the needs of the individual in a better way? Could a company really deliver on its strap line: 'A better way to live, work and play'?
In our fast-paced, results-driven culture, immediacy is key. It is a main cog on which the machine turns. But with wellbeing, there is no immediate one-size-fits-all answer. It is personal, bespoke, intricate, complex. We want the simplicity of a quick solution but when we can't reach it quickly, we are pushed to move on - often abandoning the yearning for our wholeness in its wake. Wellness is hard, it takes time and effort - and isn't as much an end point as it is a journey - a cheesy strap line perhaps, but true. We keenly sense the pain and emptiness in modern life, compartmentalising pieces of ourselves to get through the day or to the next milestone. We are separated from our true natures and, for many of us, work is no different. So, it should come as no surprise that work has never been something that has been synonymous with 'wellness' to me. For a long time it was merely a means to an end - relentlessly following me around. I made sacrifices for it - time and health being rare commodities I have as a finite resources but was all too willing to offer up.
We care about work - but does it care about us? ETCH seems to think it should.
The Wellness Retreat was an opportunity to take a pause within work hours. Dedicated time gifted back to us, to come together and look at the whole person, at Self, at our oneness and our individuality. To take a deep dive into where we are really at in life and look at where we want to go - giving us a tool kit on how to make desire a reality. Usually at corporate events such as this, one would expect shop talk to feature at some point; a vision update or strategy mapping session, but that never happened. From the moment of arrival there was space. A space of welcome and a space to just 'be' without a mask, without work ego or project 'baggage'. Were you to look around, you would have seen beaming faces, excitement, and an electricity in the air at our togetherness.
I've lived in Southampton for the past 11 years and never realised the treasure nestled in the quiet fields of Gambledown Farm existed. Naturally, my shoes and socks were off pretty much straight away, grounding down into the grass and dirt, deeply breathing in the warm air and drinking in the wide, open skies. It immediately brought the soul back to nature. The eager beavers and event organisers were busying themselves on the site. The welcome tent was erected and prepped with the Covid tests and gift bags at the entrance; the field was an array of colour with scattered pool noodles, hula hoops, cones, and tug-of-war rope for team games; the campfires were being loaded with wood; and four large BBQs were being readied for the banquet that was going to be laid out in a matter of hours. An old jeep held pride of place as the centrepiece to the evening's frivolities, situated between the safari tents that would house the majority of campers for the night. The jeep was our makeshift bar for the event, primed with copious beverages, including a fantastic home-brew (for the artisan beer lovers of the group). People trundled onto the camp grounds with their belongings. Some were clearly the well-weathered essentials-only-level-campers, whilst others (including myself) had evidently packed for all possibilities complete with kitchen sink in tow. The evening brought everyone back to basics - being together, around a table, and having enormous fun. It was the reset we all needed.
The following morning began with a charismatic awakening (read army-bugle-call style, complete with turnout service) - the kind that raises the dead and ends up with those of us nursing tender heads wishing a swift ending to the human alarm clock. The group slowly emerged from warm duvet cocoons, congregating on the dewy carpets outside, waiting in vigil for the camping kettles to whistle as our dawn chorus for a desperately needed caffeine buzz. 7am arrived and we split off into exercise groups. The avid runners could be seen downing cartons of Caprisun and limbering up for a cross country sprint that my old gym teacher would be proud of. The Pilates group rolled onto mats and lay prostrate under the sun...until the instructor set us to work. At the end of the hour there was a distinct atmosphere of accomplishment. The camaraderie and collective nature of early morning exercise really energised me - underlining a personal motivator and a need to make time to reconnect to my body and sensations more regularly. After a hearty breakfast in the main meeting area, overlooking a beautifully manicured courtyard garden with neatly placed hay bales, we sat down to the first of many inspiring and challenging speakers.
The entire day was driven to encouragement, growth, making wiser choices, shifting to healthier habits, sharing wisdom, moving us to richer, more embodied versions of ourselves. We touched on good mental and physical health, caring for our planet, the deep satisfaction of a job well done, of meaningful lifestyles and purpose, of the barriers to achieving these things; and with each talk we were handed keys to unlock positive change. I was even surprised at my engagement with my least favourite topic on 'Financial Future'...which plied me with some fantastic resources and helped me realistically plan for a more considered future. There wasn't the same air of passive consumerism that I have been used to at other business events, every session ended with committing a promise to ourselves for a small change or action we could take forward into our daily lives. My brain was a flurry of information and ideas.
I could wax lyrical on all the sessions individually, but I think the most poignant for me was the concluding talk on Deliberate Living. It was concise, not lasting more than 15 minutes, but it's left a lasting mark on me. It asked the question, 'how can we spend our time wisely and live deliberately? In the middle of the chaos of the noisy, fast-paced and highly addictive digital world how can we slow down and simplify - to reach the place where we can truly say, regardless of situation, 'It is well with my soul'?' It was as though someone pointed a spotlight on my very core and haloed each facet that made up my 'me-ness' and embraced it wholeheartedly. It saw the Creative, the Friend, the Wacky, the Unspoken, the Cautious, the Tired, the Depressive, the Worker, the Responsible-one, the Musician, the Fun-lover, the Tree-hugger and affirmed each one in turn. All the threads of my holistic wellbeing were suddenly woven together in that moment for me - spinning out this incredible, sparkling web, from which I could see that I was neglecting myself if I was not deliberately living with each part openly. The yearning in my soul to be able to say 'it is well' was pried open and uncovered.
I can safely say that I did not expect that from a work wellness retreat.
Having spent these days with the ETCH team, I can say that at the heart of ETCH is a group of people who genuinely care about the individual as well as the whole. It's as though they have placed a magnifying glass up to previous ways of working and being, scrutinised the inconsistencies, and captured something of what the evolution of organisations could look like if they placed more investment into the holistic wellbeing of their most important resource - the human being. ETCH wants their team to love what they do, and do what they love. Weaving in a sense of direction and purpose, to enable staff to live life in its fullness rather than spectating at moments that have passed by. It's made me ask some uncomfortable questions: how can we truly offer from an empty cup? How does the world benefit from our lack or our small-mindedness? Am I living vibrantly, wholeheartedly? What parts of myself have I minimised or neglected? How can I invest back into and cultivate those parts and make them flourish? In a world where work typically seems to take, take, take with little return, accompanied by the gradual erosion of enthusiasm and excitement, I would say that having the time to sit and reflect, play, and listen was significant, excavational, decentering, and provided the irritant to ponder and digest some questions that were really needed. It was a time and space unlike any other that I have experienced before, and it has enabled me start a new journey to make some different personal choices.
Check out the video from our retreat, and ask yourself, what would a better way to live, work, and play look like for you?