Martin Edwards: The danger of caring too much

It's impossible to work at a children's hospice without encountering childhood death, and that can drain you, writes our columnist

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

We now know what can happen to politicians who are deemed to be out of touch in these reactionary times. They are considered disdainful of normal people’s concerns, and before they know it they are giving dignified concession speeches.  

Charity chief executives should likewise avoid being remote, technocratic figures. But there are also pitfalls in going the other way – the dangers of caring too much.

You might become a populist demagogue who whips their supporters up against the establishment. You sometimes see this when major charities collapse, blaming the government despite it having given them many millions of pounds, producing a scornful "them and us" narrative in which nobody but "us" cared about the forgotten.

But there’s a more common risk for the leader who doesn’t want to be a technocrat: burnout.

It’s impossible to run a children’s hospice thoroughly without encountering childhood death. You can sit behind a desk if you want to, but to truly feel the pulse of the charity you have to engage with the service. That means meeting family members enduring extreme stress, finding out what your nursing care staff really do for a living and occasionally seeing the very saddest of things. Only then do you begin to appreciate just how cruel life can be.

I also host our memorial days for families, with other colleagues. You can’t play a meaningful part in these by just going through the motions. We need a high degree of sensitivity for the bereaved and to connect on some level with their deepest sorrow.

I’ve given many talks about our cause in which I’ve struggled to contain my emotions, conveying the reality and compassion of our work so much that I feel utterly drained at the end. Yet it is obvious when you’ve kindled a fire in an audience.

Often you don’t quite know when you cross over from emotional engagement to near burnout. Perhaps you step back and forth across the line many times over the years. Even avoiding the narcissism of thinking it’s about you, because you’re not the one suffering, it’s still difficult to truly care without caring too much.

I suspect most chief executives veer too far the other way, towards the technocratic. It’s easier to be detached and distant. You often need to be, as when saying no to a new service or to more resources because they would over-extend the charity.

But to reach a collective, inspired level of performance you need to show your passion, because whether you realise it or not, everyone is taking their lead from you and reacting to you.

Otherwise you might be giving a dignified departing speech with glistening eyes, when it’s too late to make a difference.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of Julia’s House, the Dorset and Wiltshire children’s hospice

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