The important things in life

Tony Wright, 2018 Clore Social Fellow, writes about being a CEO of a small charity, looking after yourself and family life… all amidst a pandemic.

Sometimes, running a small charity can feel like ‘clinging onto a runaway train’ and no matter how much we try to make sure we have a work-life balance, nine times out of ten, the rhetoric just doesn’t meet the reality.

It is a competitive world out there and the only thing that buys time in this business is money. By that I mean sufficient funding to employ more staff and delegate tasks, or as I have just discovered, a worldwide pandemic will buy you a lot of time to reflect on what really matters.

Never in a working career stretching over 40 years have I had to cancel every single appointment, booking or project for the next 12 months… but I have, and after the initial anxiety of doing so, it’s been truly liberating.

It was during my Clore Social Leadership programme in 2018 that I was given tacit permission by the programme tutors to put myself first. They told me my health and my wellbeing were paramount and whilst that may seem obvious, it was not to me. They said it was my responsibility to look after myself otherwise I would not be in the best place to look after others or carry out my responsibilities as a CEO in the Service Charity sector.

Being given permission to be kind to myself has been life changing.

For the first time in my working life I made full use of my holiday entitlement. I was only available during working hours and never at weekends. If I were tired, I would finish early, I am a morning person and my best thinking and productivity is over by 3pm. The last two hours of a 9-5 working day are in my case, quite pointless as I am up at 6am and respond to outstanding emails before the daily commute to work. By late afternoon I am just going through the motions.

The enforced break has for me, been a blessing, as I have had to accept that I was not in control of anything work related. It has proved to be a fantastic opportunity to relax and reflect on professional practice, the direction of my life and what really makes me happy. This can rarely be achieved during working hours or during my annual holiday allocation - I usually get a bad cold and my much-needed break is spent recovering! As they say… the body keeps the score. It takes me at least six days before I stop dreaming about work issues and once I have reached that meditative state, I then start thinking about what I need to do before I return. It is not good!

However, this pandemic was something different, Italy was in big trouble, so I decided to shut up shop on 14th March to protect staff and those accessing our service. A great deal of our work is community based and involves group or one-to-one intervention. The fact we still don’t fully understand how this virus is transmitted tells me that my decision to stop all operations was the right thing to do. In a world where defensive decision-making rules… I was glad that I did!

Within days, members of my family went down with flu-like symptoms which may or may not have been related to the Coronavirus, but we have all struggled with a persistent chest infection for the last few weeks. My household, like many others, has experienced the anxiety, worry and mild paranoia of trying to protect and shield against an invisible threat that even the medical experts are struggling to understand.

Despite my taking holidays and setting boundaries... the charity that I founded and manage has gone from strength to strength.

Yet, despite the circumstances, family isolation has been a wonderful experience, even the family dog has benefited from numerous walks and constant company. As a family we are concerned for friends and acquaintances and devastated by the tragic loss of life of so many. Yet, we are grateful for everything we have and more appreciative of each other too. Previously I think we may have taken everything and each other for granted. The opportunity to read all the books that never get read, listen to music, wipe the dust off neglected musical instruments, enjoy quality time preparing healthy home cooked meals and the simple joy of eating together has been a truly wonderful experience. We all know what is most important and the reality is, it is not work.

Bizarrely, despite my taking holidays and setting boundaries regarding my availability, the charity that I founded and manage has gone from strength to strength over the last two years winning numerous awards and attracting significant funding for the future. I now know that my employment matters but does not define me. I want it to continue on its current trajectory but if this pandemic has taught me anything, it is that I’m happiest at home with my family and that they come first.

To paraphrase the musician Ray Wylie Hubbard:

The days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations … I have really good days.
Tony Wright


Tony Wright is CEO of Forward Assist and a 2018 Clore Social Fellow. Connect with Forward Assist on Twitter, or Tony on LinkedIn.

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