Martin Edwards: The power of peer support

Chief executives often lack a peer group – but having people to talk to becomes even more important when we are isolated at home

Hands up if you feel exhausted? After a year of pandemic crisis management, adapting services and wondering where the money is coming from, we’re all a bit punch-drunk.

Add the fact that a leader must spend a lot of time supporting others, and it’s easy for your own well to run dry.

I used to think the most valuable thing we had as leaders was time. I guarded mine carefully, using every minute and avoiding costly distractions.

However, the pandemic has shown that one thing matters even more: our resilience. When that starts to go, time becomes irrelevant.

To help our staff’s wellbeing, we have made available any number of wellbeing apps, bulletins, webinars and videos. But sometimes you just need to talk to someone.

This can be one-to-one, such as mentoring, coaching or counselling; but I have found semi-structured peer group discussion is a less intense way to release the pressure valve.

There are some eye-wateringly expensive commercial offerings out there for peer learning, the cost of which would only add to a charity leader’s stress.

Instead I joined a group run by the Change Makers Community, a non-profit model.

We were a diverse group from all over the country and from different parts of the voluntary sector.

This was important, because if we stay in the same online huddles, we perpetuate a sense of stasis and struggle. We need to talk with new people and gain a new set of perspectives on our situation.

There were problem-solving discussions where we pooled our experience on individual challenges, but for me it was at least as useful just to have people to talk to.

This is especially important for chief executives, who don’t have a peer group: we manage senior staff and report to a board. It becomes even more important when we are isolated at home.

Some people say society is in danger of talking itself into a state of despair, equating any transient unhappiness with a mental health condition.

I disagree: a person’s mental state, worn down by months of overwork and loneliness, becomes brittle and prone to break.

As I write this, I am looking at the same four walls where I live and work alone.

If we live hermetically sealed lives, work in the same echo chambers, and our default is to support others, who is going to tell us it is time to look after ourselves?

Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children’s hospice Julia’s House. Information about the Change Makers Community can be found here.

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