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Mental Health Awareness Week: leadership and loneliness

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year’s theme is loneliness. Three civil society leaders share their thoughts on this topic and what leadership and being a charity CEO have to do with it.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

Laura Alcock-Ferguson, chief executive, Ancient Tree Forum

Loneliness of the charity CEO

When, after nine years, I left my role as Director of the Campaign to End Loneliness (CEL), I knew I had grown to become consciously incompetent about my connections, relationships, and susceptibility to becoming lonely occasionally. Knowing about loneliness doesn’t make you less lonely!

What you can do about loneliness in your organisation.

At the same time, externally, loneliness had become big news. In 2017, a report was published on the cost of loneliness to employers; the Westminster government published a loneliness strategy; and DCMS set up an Employer’s Loneliness Leadership Group. In 2021, DCMS published a report from this Leadership Group of Employers, for those responsible for staff wellbeing to make improvements based on five themes, including culture and infrastructure. The report gives examples of what organisations were doing across all sectors.

What a charity CEO can do about their own loneliness.

The report above does not cover what CEOs and leaders can do about their own loneliness. Some of my learnings (after 2.5 years as a charity CEO) that help me with loneliness as a CEO are:

  • You might not identify it as loneliness…You can’t tell if someone else is lonely – they must tell you. And often, the words they use to describe what they’re experiencing don’t include “lonely”.
  • Do you have meaningful connections? You could loosely interpret any definition about loneliness as being about meaningful connections or whether you are really and deeply listened to, and whether you feel you belong or are valued. This helps me to reflect on when as a CEO I am likely to feel lonely and to take time to plan in support when I know those times are coming up: reflection, peer-support and mentoring can all help.
  • There are distinct types of loneliness… You can feel emotionally or social loneliness. Emotional loneliness is when you miss one other special person. Although this is normally associated with huge personal loss such as bereavement, this might happen if your chair leaves and you had previously worked very well and closely. Social loneliness is when you feel you are missing being part of a social group. Again, this may be felt by CEOs who do not have peer support.
  • It is OK to feel lonely, sometimes… Sometimes it is OK to feel lonely. Some researchers think it is a trigger to help us act. The late John Cacioppo used to describe loneliness as akin to hunger – where hunger reminds us to eat, loneliness reminds us to connect.
  • Don’t take all the responsibility… Just like societal loneliness, if you feel lonely, alleviating that is not all down to you; as the report above says, in an organisational-setting it’s about culture and board involvement too (which is indeed a huge part of the role of the CEO, but should be acted-upon by more than just yourself!).

Jan Hutchinson, director of programmes, Centre for Mental Health

Loneliness – a word that has nothing to redeem it. Whereas solitude, for instance, has some potential for personal benefit, loneliness is firmly focussed on the lack of friends and company.

“Are you lonely?” is a question much easier to ask than to answer, because we like to convince ourselves it doesn’t imply pity. “Perhaps they enjoy their own company”; “maybe they are an introvert with a love of reading.”

Yet to answer the question “How are you?” with “I’m lonely” is unexpected, odd and jarring. “Oh.” “Are they saying it’s my fault they are lonely? What am I supposed to do, what can I say?”

I heard of an old man who offered his great niece some money – a few thousand pounds. He told her that he had plenty, and nothing to spend it on. She was delighted with this generous gift and gladly accepted. Then every week he called her and asked if she would visit him on a Sunday afternoon. She refused. “I don’t want to be tied down to regular visits, not every week. I will visit when I can, but I won’t do it out of a sense of duty.” Loneliness can be incurable, when even cash can’t buy companionship.

Poor mental health and loneliness feed off each other. Who wants to be around someone who is so down or needy that they absorb all your joy and patience, and it makes them no better? There are no pills for loneliness, no bandages for heartache. However, talking is therapy. Giving some time is treatment, and just being present, as a friend, bearing the pain, brings some relief. Yes, perhaps it feels like a big ask of me – but one day I could be the one who is asking.

Tom Andrews, head of member support, ACEVO

Loneliness. You are not alone.

Through my role supporting members, I hear regularly about loneliness.

The loneliness of carrying the burden of responsibility for your organisation, the loneliness of being the one people come to, the loneliness of not having anyone that really gets what you are going through. This sense of isolation is not a rare phenomenon, it is surprisingly – or maybe not surprisingly – common. I certainly experienced it as a Chief Executive.

Loneliness can feel amorphous and hard to pin down. It can draw you into thinking that this is just the way things are. But by acknowledging it and talking to someone about it, something starts to solidify. It starts to be real and something that can be faced: I am feeling lonely, what can I do to counter this? How can I reclaim my agency? I might be feeling rubbish now, but I have a plan and am taking some small steps.

And I know it’s not a question about strategic priorities or governance disputes, the cost of living or a financial crisis, but feeling a sense of loneliness is an equally valid reason for getting in touch with us to chat. Please do. We can listen, support your thinking, link you with another CEO, and just be there.

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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