When guests leave Jools Sampson’s retreats, it is normally in a “brighter and lighter” state. But for the men and women who have been working on the frontline of the pandemic, the difference is akin to a “transformation”.
The 53-year-old owner of Reclaim Yourself, one of the UK’s leading bespoke wellness retreat companies, has been offering free spaces to NHS staff since 2020.
Beautiful venues like Tofte Manor in Bedfordshire - which would normally charge thousands for commercial stays - waived their fees. While Sampson’s team volunteered their services so the medics could have some sorely needed TLC.
“I’ve never had an experience quite like it and it’s something I’ll hold close to my heart forever,” wrote one guest. “You have given me so many tools to use in my work and home life that will not only help me but will have a ripple effect on those around me too.”
A common refrain was, simply, “No one’s ever been this kind to me.”
As the UK enters a new phase of the pandemic, with all ‘Plan B’ restrictions dropped from 27 January, Reclaim Yourself faces a demand-and-supply dilemma.
The pandemic has not gone away, and staff are busier than ever dealing with COVID cases as well as the huge backlog of non-COVID patients, says Sampson. She has hundreds of deserving nominees on her list, but with venues now filling up fast, it’s getting harder to find the space or time to continue the gifted retreats.
To that end Sampson has started a fundraiser. And, testament to the undercurrent of gratitude that Brits still feel for their health service, she’s over half way to her £20,000 (€24,000) goal.
The benefits of retreats for NHS pandemic teams
Before the first NHS retreat in September 2020, Sampson wasn’t sure how receptive her guests would be. “I assumed the NHS guys probably don’t have much time to be yogis. But if they just come and sleep in a beautiful manor house for a weekend and let us cook for them, and have a nice rest, then that would be enough.”
In fact, the opposite happened. That first cohort chose every yoga class, massage, mindfulness, breathwork, and forest bathing session going.
After 15 years in the business, Sampson is finely attuned to the emotional state of her guests. The pandemic has of course been stressful, tiring and isolating for all of us to varying degrees - but for frontline staff it’s a different level, she says.
“They’re completely exhausted, all of them. They’re very emotionally vulnerable and they’re angry, a lot of them - they’ve been through a lot and they’re not being treated brilliantly.”
Those who have been working on ITU units and COVID wards are prioritised for places.Many of these workers are suffering from PTSD after facing multiple deaths, including the loss of colleagues.
Sampson’s team aren’t offering counselling or other necessary treatments for these conditions - “we just create the container,” she says.
Creating space to talk
One of the core elements of these retreats is the time built in for guests to chat to each other. Sampson often picks people doing similar jobs at different hospitals, enabling them to debrief with a peer.
In one “heartbreaking” exchange, two young respiratory physios who had been thrown into the COVID wards - managing 15-20 “end of life” situations on every shift - were able to discuss the emotional toll with two more experienced nurses.
The last gifted retreat ran in October 2021. After a winter of staff shortages, “overwhelmed” was the word that kept coming through on the nominations. At a regular retreat last weekend, one A&E worker said he had to manage a queue of 60 people.
Almost £12,000 (€14,000) has been raised on GoFundMe so far, meaning the next NHS retreat at Fair Oak Farm, East Sussex in March can go ahead, but they’re still looking to secure three more retreats. “People are attracted to the whole positive energy of it,” says Sampson, “so it’s taken on a life of its own.”
Reclaim Yourself retreats for all
The desire to connect with others is not just a trend within the NHS groups. While some people preferred to retreat to their rooms pre-pandemic, “now everyone’s chatting.”
As much as Reclaim Yourself is about self-care and pampering, the group holiday element of it holds huge appeal, says Sampson, bringing together people of all ages and from all walks of life who have missed out on conversation.
The opportunity to travel, too, is in high demand. On retreats she ran to Greece and Iceland last year, people were in tears to see the beach and waterfalls in these spectacular locations.
With a background in international development, Sampson is eager to make these trips as sustainable as possible. The company is part of Tourism Declares - the travel community set on tackling the climate emergency - and a founding signatory of the Glasgow Declaration.
They are on track to cut carbon emissions to below 50 per cent of 2019 levels by the end of the decade, through running fewer long-haul retreats, more slow travel ones, and being selective in working with local partners.