Getting back on track through kindness

19 Oct 2022

A guest blog from Mike Robinson, LINK Honorary Fellow.  

The first nine months of this year have been some of the most disruptive I have ever known.  Almost everyone I speak to feels they have been working harder than ever but can’t quite put their finger on what they’ve achieved.  It is relentless and it feels like we are all drowning in an ever greater barrage of stuff that needs done.

Many people are still working incredibly hard, leading to online debate about whether mass staff burnout is imminent. Some are still getting ill and others are struggling, faced with uncertainties, unsure how to adapt, frustrated or on the sharp end of a latent anger at covid and restrictions and well everything.  I wonder if the public response from some is a grief response.  Many are trying to get out and enjoy their renewed freedoms, leading to a larger proportion of people being away than I can ever remember. Some have taken the opportunity to reconsider their career, or their retirement. And others have returned to jobs from ‘Covid emergency’ roles of various kinds and are now playing catch-up.

It’s not been easy getting people to convene, let alone to make things happen, and that’s without the backdrop of war, travel disruption, Brexit inspired staff shortages, severe strains on public budgets, striking workers and rising food and energy prices. It does all feel quite relentless.  We are all worried about the spiralling cost of living crisis, and many (especially those still in work) are realising their pension provision is probably inadequate. 

My sense is that we are all simply full to the teeth with bad news and desperate for real positivity, clear leadership and a reversal of fortunes.  We could all do with something to look forward to – a coming together – a rebuilding of confidence, tolerance and trust.  And some sheer joy.  

I have met so many people from all sorts of sectors across society who report being really, really busy but not entirely sure what they’ve achieved, and are struggling with burn-out, and, I sense, beating themselves up for what they haven’t managed to do, personally or professionally.  Others are being pushed at work too hard to ‘catch up time’.  As a result I find myself wanting to caution them (and their managers), to go easy, to not beat yourselves up about what hasn’t happened yet.  Because it has been a remarkably odd period.  In many ways it feels to me like the last 2 years don’t count.  Although plenty has happened, it all feels a bit of a blur and indistinct.  Maybe, for now at least, it’s simply okay to have got through it. Only now do I think we are beginning to get enough distance from it all to actually look ahead again.

So my first response to all of this is that we each need to be kind to ourselves…  This has been a genuinely exceptional period, so there is no point being over critical, angry or overly frustrated – it was outwith all of our control.   Sometimes life blows us off course. 

Secondly, I think we need to remember to be kind to those around us.  I don’t think anyone really knows quite how to respond right now, or exactly what the right thing to do is.  Some people want to stay at home, others to wear masks, others to flaunt all rules and party and most people are distracted by the immediate worries around the cost of living crisis.  There is no one response.  I think we need to respect other people’s uncertainties and anxieties, and let them work out how to respond. 

Thirdly I would like to encourage people to be forgiving of each other.  I feel I am almost having to re-learn the art of conversation, especially small talk (never a strong point) and I’m bemused at the increased quiet spells I find in group conversation which I never remember being so frequent or awkward before Covid.  It’s going to take time.

And finally I would encourage people to demand better.  We have had to watch as our political leaders tried to pick their way through one of the most difficult periods in recent memory.  Most though, obsessed with Brexit ideology, failed to respond quickly or adequately to the Covid pandemic, and are also failing to respond to the negative impact of Brexit and the Ukraine war, or to the cost of living crisis, leaving most of us far worse off economically, socially and environmentally than at any point I can remember. 

The short-term problems of cost of living and resource scarcity, and the longer-term problems facing all of us, like climate change, biodiversity loss, geopolitical realities and major social inequalities, demand some grown up responses and urgent action.  We need leaders promoting empathy, altruism, collaboration and community cohesion. 

Perhaps we should use the last 3 months of 2022 to  prepare properly and get ready…  We are now going to get swamped by the cost of living crisis, and some of the immediate madness that seems to surround us politically.  So rather than drown under it, we need to take the opportunity to pull back, to plan and regather.  We need to refresh ourselves and our approach.  We need to work more collaboratively than ever, because there are not enough of us to go round. 

I think we also need to learn to trust people again – lots of other people are trying to help too, if we let them, and we’re not going to succeed without them.   We need to use intersectionality as a way to build our support and galvanise action, and spread the awareness that whatever your starting point in your concern for people and the planet, we are actually all in the same fight.  However, if we use it as a way to divide, diminish or alienate some of the progressive or sympathetic voices we will lose.  

Many people out there want to help, they just don’t really know what to do.  We’ve got to get better at talking to them and not just ourselves, because we need them.  And better at articulating more simply, what we want.  “More biodiversity” is not an ask, it’s a principle.  What does it actually look like? 

We know we need to bring about a massive increase in the speed and scale of change and it’s not happening… Business as usual is a dirty phrase … How do we accelerate action and respond like it is an emergency?  I gave a speech outlining the climate emergency to Link Congress in Birnam in 2007 (15 years ago), and we’re still having it.  So pace yourself for the long haul, or we’re all going to burn out.

In the mean time, I want to thank all of you for what you do.  Thank you for giving your working lives to trying to make the planet a better place.  Thank you for standing up for wildlife and nature, and ultimately humanity.   Thank you for doing the right thing, even though it’s difficult and largely thankless and can feel like pushing water up a hill.  And thank you, because it is all of you that make this feel less of a lonely battle.

Be kind to yourselves, you can’t fix it all and you’ll never do it alone.   Let’s use the rest of 2022 to build our own resilience.   And starting in 2023, we will be ready to do it all again, only bigger and better.  

Let’s make it count.

Mike Robinson, Chief Executive at Royal Scottish Geographical Society and LINK Honorary Fellow. 

This blog is the after dinner speech that Mike gave at LINK’s 2022 Congress: Wellbeing for All. 

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