Back in November 2020, ACEVO and Mental Health First Aid published a report on workforce wellbeing in charities and I was fortunate enough to be part of the working group that helped put the report together.

The group was wonderfully chaired by Jules Hillier, CEO of Pause, and in the foreword Jules says:

One of the joys of the social sector is the passion and commitment of the people who work in it. Often, in part because that passion and commitment is rooted in personal experiences of the issues we are all trying to address, we can find ourselves fragile and vulnerable to poor mental health as a direct result of our work.

As sector leaders, we have an important role to play in ensuring workplaces are happy and healthy, our teams thrive, and our people are able to bring their whole selves to work. But we can only do that effectively if we ourselves are able to cope.

The challenges of being a CEO in the social sector also make it exciting and rewarding, but the difficulties are real and the impact on our lives considerable. We have to balance highly-prized authenticity and openness with reassuring competence and control even during the darkest times.

Reflecting on my involvement in the working group, and the words Jules highlighted about authenticity and openness, made me think that now was a good time to reflect on how I have coped over the last 15 months or so.

I started to write this blog thinking that I would just write a basic list of what’s been good and bad, but actually have surprised myself when I’ve started reflecting on how much I’ve learnt! So, in this blog I’ve focussed on what I’ve learnt about work-life balance and flexible working, but I will follow up with thoughts on home schooling, governance, decision making, the impact of lived experience and the need for breaks at a later date.

Weekend working became normal, morning meetings often took place when it was dark and late night calls became part of my daily routine
Michelle

Like most organisations, back in March 2020, TLC: Talk, Listen, Change closed our office doors and moved our operations and our service delivery into our homes.

The first few weeks were frantic as we changed organisational processes, bought and distributed new IT and mobile working equipment, introduced daily Senior Leadership Team calls and made decisions at a frightening pace.

Schools were sent home and, as a parent, balancing everything became a struggle.

I started to work more and more, starting earlier, finishing later and trying to squeeze in some time with my girls in the middle. Weekend working became normal, morning meetings often took place when it was dark and late night calls with Anna, our Director of Services, became a part of my daily routine.

I wasn’t sleeping very well either – working until just before bed and falling asleep with thoughts of budgets, furlough decisions and safeguarding in my head and therefore also filling my dreams.

Waking up multiple times and deciding I might as well start work was quite usual.

But then, slowly, gradually it started to change and I created a better routine.

I became more structured with my diary and introduced new ways of managing my time and prioritising. I blocked out a break for lunch every day (in a different colour so it stood out!) and started to incorporate a daily walk. I set myself ever increasing step challenges to motivate myself to get outside whatever the weather.

I continued to work at unusual times but embraced the opportunity it gave me to get outside in the day light and the time it gave me to be productive before others were logged on. I started to log the hours I was working every day so I could shine a light on myself when I was struggling to stop.

When my girls returned to school in April, I continued to work early in the morning and aimed to do 90 mins between 6am – 7.30am each day before we started the pre-school routine. I’m always interrupted at about 6.30am by my eldest who comes in when she wakes up. I’m working in a bedroom so there is always a bed we can sneak in to for a cuddle when she comes in. It’s become a precious and treasured part of my daily routine. I really love stopping at 7.30am now to get ready (yes the first part of the day is done in my PJs), to help the girls get ready, to have breakfast together and on some days to take them to school, knowing that I have already made a start on what I have to get through for the day.

My husband is working at home too and as schools have returned, we’re trying to embrace the opportunity to walk together a few times in the week or have lunch together. We’re trying to relish those extra opportunities for child free conversation that weren’t there before.

I’ve been surprised by how many people jump at the chance to have a walking and talking meeting when I’ve offered them. I think people are glad to be away from the screen
Michelle

Once restrictions eased I started to do more and more walk and talk meetings, with most 1-2-1s now carried out this way. Sometimes these have been face-to-face and Emily, our Head of Development took me on a wonderful tour of the hills near her home at our last catch up. My appraisal with Mike Gaskell, Chair of our Board was done this way and it’s also been a great way to catch up with partners in different organisations.

At other times these meetings have been through a traditional phone call and more and more I am starting to take the option of scheduling a call rather than a zoom or teams meeting so that I can get outside and walk at the same time. It means I focus more on the other person, without the distractions of notifications on different screens and my phone buzzing with a message or tweet. I’ve been surprised by how many people jump at the chance to have a walking and talking meeting when I’ve offered them too. I think everyone has been glad of the time away from the screen.

I walk and talk whatever the weather, I’ve got very wet and muddy sometimes and caught the sun at others. I’ve never understood more clearly the link between physical and mental health. The more I walk, the physically healthier I feel and the better I feel emotionally too.

As everything starts to open up more, I’m starting to work through what a potential return to offices will look like for me and I’m clear that I want to retain some of what I’ve learnt. The list of things I’m hoping to take with me in this next stage of the roadmap includes:

  • Early morning working
  • Regular lunch breaks
  • Daily walks
  • 1-2-1 meetings and conversations outside

I’ve enjoyed spending some time reflecting on what I’ve learnt over the last year or so about work life balance and flexible working and I’m sure I have so much more I will continue to learn about myself.

I’d love to know what has worked for you too if you are happy to share.

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