As I start writing this, aware of tomorrow’s print deadline, you’d think I would have a good idea of what to write about. Having a short break would have surely left me “refreshed” and inspired to write something profound on, say, levelling up or inequality.
Sorry to disappoint.
Instead, I find myself sitting here blankly. The first Tuesday back after the Christmas break couldn’t have felt more like a Monday (great start, Alan).
The truth is, I am tired. Still. I think many are: and a quick glimpse on Twitter confirms it.
I have talked to a lot of people these past few months who spoke about feeling burnt out or mentally exhausted. Some even said they were thinking about leaving the sector in search of a longer break, although most admitted they wouldn’t have the financial privilege to do this. From where I’m standing, it seems the charity sector faces a mental health crisis. Perhaps it’s one that has been coming for a while.
Early in 2021, my previous employers discussed ways to improve mental health provision for staff. Having always valued authenticity and openness, I mentioned that the four days I had been off sick that year had been because of my mental health – and subsequently received messages from teammates who shared their own experiences with mental health.
It has always been apparent to me that part of normalising conversations about mental health requires leaders to be honest about their own experiences. Stigma often thrives under a fear – and even the reality – of being judged or having our experiences dismissed. So we refrain from sharing how we feel and, instead, keep it to ourselves.
This can also seep into our approach to work, where we associate being busy with success. At this time of year, we can feel a pressure to motor ahead at full pelt, both professionally and personally.
But what if we don’t feel like that right now? Should we be giving in to the urge to fake it, rather than being open and seeking the support of our colleagues and leaders?
The new year shouldn’t just pressure us into resolutions and working more. Creating priorities and business plans for 2022 are important elements of our work, but they can’t be the be-all and end-all.
Caring about what you do and being tired – or even uninspired – are not mutually exclusive, and we should be mindful to avoid the trap of framing our work cultures around this.
We should also be careful not to make assumptions about other people and their circumstances – an easy mistake to make when we often work with colleagues who look and talk like ourselves.
Diversifying our sector and prioritising the voices of those with lived experience will help to prevent us from falling into this trap. For some, 2021 was exhausting because of Covid-19 or funding restrictions. For others it will have been because of racist experiences, misogyny, or both.
The recent break will also have meant different things to different people. I spent some of my holiday caring for disabled family members and talking to my mum on the phone as she spent Christmas alone. Others will have had similar experiences.
We have made progress as a sector on centring mental wellbeing, and this should encourage us to go even further. Part of this means meeting people where they are.
It’s also about reminding each other that people come first: that the purpose of our work starts and ends with people.
So, let’s all play our part and demonstrate this as leaders, managers, and colleagues. Does it matter if someone takes a slightly longer lunch break this week? Is that email really urgent? How about checking in on a colleague you don’t know as well?
We all recognise the difficult year we’ve had. Let’s not revert to business as usual.
Extraordinary times mean stepping up for each other, with kindness and care. Change starts with us. Let’s look after ourselves, and each other, even more this year.
How about that for a 2022 resolution?
Alan Lally-Francis is head of influencing at the charity leaders body Acevo