Peter Leonard: Why should we care about emotional health?

Peter Leonard, chief executive of Family Links asks why should we care about emotional health, in a week where there was an earthquake in Turkey and Syria and the cost of living crisis ramps up.
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It’s Monday 6th February and it’s my birthday. Work is incredibly busy, I’m currently renovating a house with a move in date of just three weeks, overnight there was an horrendous earthquake in Turkey and Syria, there is a cost of living crisis and the news seems full of war, economic turmoil and general woe. Oh, and I have to write a piece for the Charity Times on Emotional Health Awareness Day – 24th February - the same day I have to move all my worldly goods from one location to another. There is more than a hint of irony about the fact that I am doing one of the most stressful things someone can do on the day the charity I lead will be promoting an awareness of Emotional Health and its importance to our lives.

Maybe, however, this is ideal because it makes the point rather helpfully that good emotional health isn’t about being happy all the time. Neither is it some vague, ephemeral concept but actually an approach, a way of being, a set of skills which we can develop to help us navigate the ups and downs of life which I describe in the opening to this piece. My life, my stresses and strains are no worse than anyone else’s, we all have to navigate them in some way. At Family Links, the Centre for Emotional Health, we have created a model of seven assets which provide us with a framework to help build good emotional health: self-awareness, self-beliefs, self-regulation, social awareness, beliefs about others, relationship skills and self-agency. Each of these assets can be developed (that’s why they are called assets – everyone has them and can improve them) and one of the things we do here is work with organisations to help develop cultures which are emotionally healthy.

What that looks like depends on context and can range from some significant steps to some extremely simple things and I’d like to share some examples with you. We have recently instituted an Emotional Health Day for all staff. This is a day away from work each year in addition to annual leave which staff can take to improve their emotional health. There are some logistical stipulations about booking it and not carrying it over but none as to how it is spent. Some might want to use it to catch up with life admin, others to spend a day resting in the garden, others to attend a retreat. Mine is on Friday and I am spending it with a friend in London recreating the Stanley Tucci Taste of Italy TV show episode where he was in London (look it up – well worth watching!). A very nurturing day indeed.

The second significant thing here is my modelling of this as a CEO. I am the first member of staff to take my Emotional Health Day and I am making sure I tell everyone that I am doing it. I am giving permission by my actions for others to prioritise their emotional health as well. It can be quite challenging for members of an organisation to prioritise their wellbeing if they don’t see their leaders doing the same, no matter how many times those same leaders talk about it. In this case, actions really do speak louder than words.

The idea for this additional Emotional Health Day came from a member of staff – we took it seriously and implemented it. Having a voice and being heard helps develop self-beliefs, beliefs about others as well as self-agency and social awareness.
We have worked with other organisations to develop charters on how people will work together, clear boundaries which have been developed by everyone and so are owned and adhered to by everyone, and where they are not, there is collective accountability to do something about that.

Other simpler actions can be reminding people to notice how they are feeling, thinking of five things we can do to settle ourselves, showing empathy towards others and maybe restricting the amount of news we watch to manageable chunks.

The top tip is to encourage yourself and others to nurture themselves, take the time to do the small things which give moments of pleasure, rest or refreshment. A session at the gym, 15 minutes with a cup of tea and a good book, a dog walk or time in the garden. Nothing hugely time consuming or expensive but the benefits of which are exponential. When we fly there is a good reason that we are instructed to put our own oxygen mask on before attending to others. As charity leaders, tending to our own Emotional Health will help others to do the same, the benefits of which will be felt individually as well as organisationally. Happy Emotional Health Awareness Day!

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