Martin Edwards: Despite constant pressure, chief executives must respond to burnout

Maintaining control can be at the forefront of leaders' minds, but their ability to demonstrate self-care sends a vital message to staff

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

If there ever was an easy time to run a charity, it’s a distant memory. Today we must deal with challenging financial constraints, greatly increased regulation, the dire legal and reputational consequences of mistakes, a minefield of HR law and the social media pitchfork mob if we ever say anything remotely off-key.

This adds up to a great deal of caution even as you try to be bold, because great problems in society call for ambitious, innovative solutions.

Add to the mix the unique nature of the chief executive role – you are the only person in the structure without a manager to support you – and you have the ingredients for excessive pressure and burnout.

I thought I was coping fine until two things happened a few months ago. First, we had two senior management vacancies that dragged on, leaving me trying to cover both roles as well as my own. Second, a hellish personal-life issue finally came to a head.

Eventually the wheels came off and I spun to a halt, forced to take time off with exhaustion. I have only done that twice in 15 years. Both times I took only 10 days off sick, conscious that work was piling up while I was away, but there was another factor in my decision to return so soon.

I hate to say it, but being an effective chief executive doesn’t just require skill, effort and wellness; it also depends on maintaining momentum. We see the same with Prime Ministers. Once you lose the appearance of being in control of events, your ability to make things happen seeps away.

Momentum depends on people believing in you. This might not even be a conscious choice: the political patterns in an organisation are more subtle and complex. 

In this age of empathy for mental illness, a chief executive should be able to make things happen to the same extent after returning from a period of stress leave. Perhaps my lack of confidence in that was itself a symptom of stress. After all, I received feedback from several staff members who said my demonstrating "self-care" by taking time off had set a good example.

During that time I also found out that I was surrounded by caring colleagues. Their compassionate support was wonderful. I like to think that you reap what you sow: if you haven’t been a caring boss, expect a lean harvest.

Because the chief executive does not have a manager, they also need to develop their own support network. Peer groups of other chief executives, a mentor, a coach – such people can help you spot the need to take some time away or help you to recover more quickly.

That sounding board needs to be outside of your trustee board because, even with kind trustees, you will always feel a need to show that you are "on top of things".

Support networks, work-life balance and recovery from ill health are fundamental to resilience. If you return to work too soon or have insufficient support, the cracks might quickly show. You will soon have to deal with someone giving you a hard time over their issue, with little or no knowledge of or sympathy for your situation.

So make time for yourself when you need it. When you report back for work, from day one you have to be ready to take the flak with your smile fixed firmly in place.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of Julia’s House, which runs children's hospices in Wiltshire and Dorset

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