Maintaining your own resilience as a councillor, 14 September 2020

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Webinar

Webinar transcript

[Gillian Ford]

Good morning, can I welcome you all to the LGA session on maintaining your own resilience as a councillor. My name is Gillian Ford I am a councillor for the London borough of Havering and I am deputy chair on the LGA's city and regions board.

Before I actually introduce the session, I would like to mention a few a couple of the housekeeping points. There will be a Q&A session after all the speakers have finished and if you'd like to ask a question if you could do so using the Q&A function at the bottom of your screens.

We have a range of excellent speakers from councils across the country we have Mimi Harker from Buckinghamshire council, we have Sarah Osborne from East Sussex County Council and we have Councillor Ed Davie from the London Borough of Lambeth.

Before I hand over to the speakers I think like many of you I found myself undertaking new roles and responsibilities at the start of the pandemic from shopping for the vulnerable, befriending, making face covers to raise funds for the local food bank, new ways of supporting residents a deluge of questions via facebook, briefings, submissions of questions to council and the explosion of online meetings and again I don't know if like you I found myself I always had the wrong app to actually enter that meeting that was required.

Timetabling took on a new meaning and physical exercise became the shopping trips of the five households that I was supporting I think DIY and Saturday night zoom meetings with our family seem to keep things absolutely on even keel for me. So as a community leader it is important that to look after yourself as well as others, and you will be having competing demands that you're having to deal with and this can be absolutely increasingly challenging to balance in a manageable way.

This session is going to be sharing the personal experiences from member Speakers and will promote techniques to support members in their roles going forward.

So I will now head over to Mimi Harker from Buckinghamshire council, Mimi.

[Mimi Harker]

Good morning everyone now isn't this one of the great ways that we have learned to adapt to the new normal you are going to hear lots of different accounts this morning and mine is a very very personal story of how I have coped with Covid as a councillor and as an individual. I suppose you start with when you stand for election it's because you want to serve your community and what happened with Covid was absolutely exceptional we would, none of us expected it, and all of a sudden everybody was required to stay indoors to stay home and stay away from everybody and that isolation meant that you couldn't do the job that you were elected to do and at first I have to say this was quite a huge shock and at first the implications didn't really sink in because we didn't understand it we'd never been here before and at first the shock of food shortages was just unbelievably scary and the loo roll, who knew toilet paper was going to be more valuable than gold.

The fact that I couldn't care for people that were vulnerable who needed that support was also too shocking for me to contemplate, I had that sort of hideous fear that was just gnawing away deep down in my gut when I spent entire days looking for essentials for us as a family because my children had also come back home, I was also shopping for two elderly ladies who were reliant on me for absolutely everything an elderly couple who needed shopping as well and the family where the dad had had an organ transplant so all four of them were shielding and unable to leave their home.

I simply couldn't get any food for any of us for the first two weeks and I have to say it was absolutely terrifying and of course who knew that six months down the line we would still be in this position minus the food shortages, it has been an extremely complex time not least because of the uncertainty of what was going on and is still going on and my only experience was really coloured by adding all of those factors up and despite my own health issues because I have fibromyalgia and I really shouldn't have been out and about but that desire to care for people and look after everyone and make sure that nothing happened on my watch was and is incredibly strong.

I've always cared but this was somehow different and this was and this is actually the new reality. So I needed to find a way to deliver and protect my own health and mental health because frankly I know that if I wasn't doing things for people I really really would have gone mad and it was a question of knowing what to do and how to help.

In my role in the community I have worked with elderly people for a number of years and some of them I've actually been shopping for and getting prescriptions and taking them out and about for the last couple of years so that was good training, I've worked with a number of charities that worked with elderly people and my greatest concern was getting that food for everyone at the beginning of it and I did turn to other sources like food bank and of course the council who were delivering food parcels to people who were vulnerable and who couldn't get hold of food and I'm quite a practical sort of person so when I saw an advert for a secondhand bread maker and even though I had no notice never had never baked bread before in my life there was no flour there was no yeast anyway but I still managed to be the first person to respond and to grab that machine and I have to say my husband bless him once flour and yeast became available again turned into the most marvellous bread maker that you could find we went to costco and we bought 16 kilo bags of flour when it was available and we handed that out to the local community at cost and we continued to bake bread including one of the elderly ladies I was looking after who absolutely loved it now that was a good result.

So I volunteered for the Covid help group and we were busy shopping collecting prescriptions posting letters and running errands for people who were vulnerable and on VE day we didn't want that to pass without some sort of commemoration so we did a cake walk and we dropped off little bags filled with biscuits and cakes to elderly people who are on their own and with the help of one of the local companies and global infusion group we also dropped off VE day high teas to all the veterans in our area and on that particular issue there was one lady who was a coder at Bletchley when I dropped off her little box to her which was full of this delicious tea she actually started crying because she could not believe that we had actually remembered and that we'd actually mark the day and in such a special way as well so it was just about I suppose doing something that was appropriate and to make people feel very special and to make them feel remembered even though we were in the middle of lockdown.

One of the local cafes that was closed it started a hot meal service for around 20 very very vulnerable older people and we've got a local de vere hotel and conference centre here and they were making up to 400 meals a week for frontline and NHS and vulnerable families which was just a godsend for some people and we set up the Covid health phone line and I am one of the 10 people who'd man the lines for that as well and anything of any concern for anyone all they have to do is pick up the phone and we will sort it out through our network of 200 SPOCS, single point of contacts for each of the roads in our town.

On the bright side unbelievably we still had plans for Buckinghamshire to become a Unitary Authority as of the 1st of April and I have to say hats off to everybody somehow that all happened seamlessly, we are now a Unitary Authority and it was incredibly sad that was the only downside of not being able to say goodbye to colleagues officers friends that we have worked with for such a long time in my case for 22 years.

The old system literally just faded away and the new one kicked in with a Covid recovery plan in place that dominated the agenda literally until a couple of weeks ago but out of all this gloom have come some amazing projects and some amazing plans I mean as I mentioned I work for a number of charities and I'm Chairman of the accredited Buckinghamshire CBS community, Impact Bucks and throughout this period we could have furloughed staff however instead we deployed everyone to deal with the Covid crisis that we were facing and we managed the incredible generous surge of community volunteers who literally stepped up and stepped forward at this time of need and crisis and we subsequently have matched over 400 people to their dream volunteering role result again, we also produced a daily Covid bulletin with all the latest news statistics and facts for everyone to digest but as soon as we realised there was a problem and the connection with frontline people from BAME backgrounds being the biggest victim succumbing to this horrible horrible illness we undertook a rapid health survey and followed this up with a workshop which really focused on BAME groups and the issues that we they that we face that actually led me on to broadening this and during this time of  Covid we were presented with lots of opportunities but this one was to consolidate this group, probably helped I have to say by the global rhetoric on black lives matter and I facilitated a roundtable discussion with as many BAME groups from across the county that I could muster and the wonderful wonderful outcome of this is eight work streams 16 leaders of those work streams all from BAME groups and we're always saying in council speak that they are  very hard to reach and you know how do we get hold of these people and how do we communicate and do things and we've just got an amazing program of events that will be rolled out across the county during October and November and I have to say it is seriously exciting.

So young people we've looked at how to help the elderly we've looked at supporting BAME groups as well but it became obvious when talking to young community leaders that we had a bit of a problem here, so I was hearing things about that in their frustration of the situation and that feeling of helplessness that having no control over any of this we saw an increase in young people self-harming so one of the things we did as local councillors was to fund a mental health group from the councillors fund especially aimed at young people and I have to say that this is a model that could actually be rolled out anywhere across the county that has a youth group.

On a personal note, I've always also tried to make some me time over the last few months I've never done anything for me in my life I mean I think the most interesting thing I did in the last couple of years was join the choir so you know and I just thought okay so everybody else I've got Covid envy because people were doing things and they were having time out they all had sun tans from sitting in the garden and I can appreciate I don't need the suntan but I did actually want some of that time off and I thought 25 years of paperwork this is the you get the greatest opportunity to do this, so I thought you know I found myself developing what I called my Covid curves because I wasn't as active as ever now I have to say I've patented that term so if you use that term from today you're going to have to pay me a royalty okay just saying so to counteract all of this I took up yoga for the first time in my life and even though the tree pose is still more like a comedy sketch because it is accompanied by squeals of laughter as I go down like the sack of bricks, I absolutely love it and it's encouraged me to take up things like meditation and mindfulness things I've never had time for and somehow some of the things that were oh so important in the old life they no longer have that same value anymore and the simpler things in life have become really really important again a walk into the town which was

unimaginable before because of schedules and needing to get everywhere fast is now the new norm and I can build it into anything I have to do in town, and hasn't zooming around taking on a new meaning, how many of us now spend our days dealing with constituents cases community meetings and council meetings on Zoom or Teams from eight to eight the new phrase is please could you unmute yourself as you zoom from one screen to the next or I must zoom off as I have another meeting to jump into.

One of the most amazing things for me is my afternoon show on Wickham Sound where I had the pleasure of a fabulous tech guy setting up them programs and icons on my laptop which has actually transformed my daughter's bedroom into a live broadcast studio and I sit there with my iphone my laptop my ipad and I present and produce my own show broadcasting it out into the world I think that's amazing and isn't technology absolutely incredible, and of course there are still magazine columns to write, campaigns to run, and council business to be done and speaking of campaigns I really want to share something a major community event that I host every year because this is coming up and everybody can do this and that is Silver Sunday and if you don't know about it, it was created by Councillor Christabel Flight from Westminster council in 2013 and after a wonderful wonderful chat with her because she is a very very inspiring lady I wanted to roll this out across Buckinghamshire.

Now Silver Sunday celebrates older people in our communities and it's especially those who are suffering from loneliness and isolation and it was a way of raising that whole issue and making people more aware so every year I host a themed tea party for approximately 160 people who are greeted by the armed forces cadets and and especially the RAF cadets and a glass of bubbles I love that intergenerational feel of the event they are then treated to an afternoon of entertainment and homemade sandwiches with assorted very delicious fillings homemade cakes and biscuits and it's all washed down with bubbles with tea with coffee with soft drinks and everyone leaves after a magnificent finale sing-along which includes land of hope and glory and the national anthem and absolutely loads of flags being waived and this year because of pandemic we aren't able to host the event so we thought if the guests can't come to us we are going to take the party to our guests, and yes because we're not restricted by numbers we are delivering 500 tea boxes to elderly people in Amisham, Chesham Little Chalfont and we're even going to sneak a couple of them over the border into Hertfordshire and to top it all to keep that very intergenerational aspect alive and kicking and to bring communities together the local primary school children are making cards to send a hug to all the lovely people receiving those tea boxes.

I believe that we have had the opportunity to do some really deep soul searching as well and people have realised quite frankly that there is more to life than that endless hamster wheel that we were all running on in perpetuity we've realised that the planet needs our help and that we can make that change, us, we have seen the effects of that change with the water in Venice running clear after centuries and fish returning as an example we can hear the birds singing every time we talk to people and wildlife and nature is flourishing all around us it's absolutely incredible what clear clean roads and skies have facilitated and I think the other thing we realise is that we can work remotely and we don't need face-to-face at every single meeting and we can be trusted to work from home and to deliver and we have, we have delivered in compassionate bucket loads and there are some compromises to be made of course there are there always are so as we move back to the new normal I have some concerns for example meetings in the same room where you have to wear face masks throughout as I do have difficulty breathing with those and colleagues I worry about them with underlying health issues and it all plays on my mind and we did actually have a meeting last week at the council offices and I was a little bit late for that because I'd forgotten about this zooming business and how it wasn't instantaneous and I couldn't teleport quite yet from my home studio as it were to the council offices but I sat at the back and I did feel okay there but some of us are fearful and some of us are a little bit worried and yet, and yet, and yet I hope we don't lose the lessons that we have learned I hope we carry on building on this wonderful homework life balance I hope we continue to help our neighbors in a way that we have never helped before and that we look out always for the really vulnerable within our communities as we have done now and more than anything I hope we find a solution to this terrible terrible illness because the way it has debilitated so many people is absolutely horrific and I genuinely send my heartfelt love and strength to anyone who has lost loved one during this time because we couldn't even grieve properly and respectfully and that was so tough on so many people.

We were asked to reflect on what has worked and what hasn't, well what hasn't worked for me the incarceration I have to say I'm somebody that, my nickname is hurricane Harker so it's been really really difficult for me and I've sort of felt very much like a bird with clipped wings I feel like a tiger that's been trapped in a cage that's only big enough for a cat and the lack of contact with people has been actually quite self revealing, in a perverse sort of way and after a lifetime of public service and always being in the public eye this was what really shocked me I think more than anything at all because I almost relished the opportunity to hide away for a bit and in fact I actually thought very seriously about jacking this all in and just becoming a hermit, now that wasn't good and it certainly wasn't me and I think that perhaps I might have been heading towards a bit of depression there because we've all had to cope with something so unusual.

I also want to put on record that I was really cross with phone providers because me being stuck in the ancient days of yore when local calls are free I was absolutely horrified to find that when I tried to make my daily calls to three elderly people because I've rung them every single day during this pandemic that my phone line had been cut off without so much as a buy or leave and it turned out that I'd racked up a bill for just over 700 quid and instead of notifying me they just cut me off after three months so when I tried to reason with them they wouldn't budge but what they did do was sell me another package which means I can continue those calls and as as long as I keep them to under an hour they will only cost me a tenner a month and but I have to say I was pretty shocked when this first happened.

I think the greatest outcome for me has been that huge surge in community outpouring and volunteering the thousands upon thousands of local areas who have turned up to help like the neighbour who made me a face mask while she and a team of other neighbours were making scrub bags and ear protectors to stop masks from chafing for our frontline staff and also for me the creativity that's been such an opportunity the new BAME group that's become an entity with events rolling out across October to celebrate Black History Month and November to celebrate Diwali, the willingness of people to cooperate and just make things happen happen and come together and the council has facilitated exhibitions in libraries across Buckinghamshire now would that have been so easy in the old world, you see I'm not so sure because of bureaucracy so this is fantastic this new spirit of let's just do it and get it done with minimum bureaucracy, the fact that I can roll out Silver Sunday and have literally hundreds of volunteers to make the food pack it and deliver it I think our communities are amazing when we give them the chance to be and during this pandemic our communities have literally shone and I'm sure you can all identify with that and there have been thousands of stars emerging from the shadow of that daily existence.

On a personal note without all these tasks and the work I do as a local Councillor I do believe that my mental health would have been shredded and working with so many amazing people on so many different projects has really reinvigorated my own personal purpose why am I here and what I'm what is it, I'm supposed to be doing I'm so pleased to have found ways to engage in my communities despite all the restrictions and all the constrictions and it has been a really really intense journey and it still continues as we work out what is the new normal, and I personally think that as councillors we should all be so proud of the way that we have coped during this time and we have continued to offer support advice and practical help to so many people especially vulnerable people who really really needed it and I congratulate everyone on a successful mission accomplished and accomplishing we shouldn't underestimate the capability we have and the value that we offer because I really believe that we do deserve a pat on the back and we shouldn't be embarrassed to do so because we love our communities we became councillors to make a difference and we have discovered so many new ways of making a difference so that making a difference the new way is the new norm and above all I love what I do, we love what we do and that is why we serve and I have to say I think looking at everything and you're going to hear some more amazing stories this morning don't we serve well. Thank you very much indeed for listening and I'm looking forward to your questions.

[Gillian]

Thank you very much indeed Mimi just to remind our viewers that there is a Q&A session and if you have any questions please send them through we've been having some questions come through already so be prepared Mimi there will be some coming your way if I can now introduce Sarah and  she is from Buckinghamshire. Actually East Sussex, apologies Sussex see look there you go, apologies, thank you.

[Sarah Osbourne]

Not at all, not at all I'll be talking as a councillor but also in my day job I work as a psychotherapist so I'll be giving that perspective as well. So as well as being a councillor I'm a peer mentor for the LGA and I've been in weekly contact with many councillors around the country during the Covid crisis so I think I have a pretty good understanding of both the pressures councillors have faced and heard how unbelievably well they have managed.

Also in preparation for this webinar I have contacted leaders of councils around the country who have shared in detail their experiences so I'd like to share a summary of what I've heard from them first and then I'll be speaking about some ways that you can look after yourself.

Leaders and those in leadership positions told me that they felt a huge increase in pressure especially in the beginning of lockdown and for many of them they felt that the decisions they were having to make were profound and would have an immediate effect on people's lives and in some instances they described them as seeming like life or death decisions particularly when they were making decisions about were they risking the lives of their staff by asking them to provide face-to-face services they found balancing those needs balancing the needs of their residents with the safety of their staff and with keeping the economy going very challenging and they all said to me that they put safety first every time. They felt a lot of pressure to run ahead of certain situations such as pressure to close markets or parks, in the early part of lockdown a lot of the councillors dealing with street homelessness found that that used up a huge amount of resources and all of them felt their lifestyle had become much more stressed they were working longer hours working back-to-back with online meetings as well as countless emails and calls one leader told me that his role required him to use eight different video conferencing platforms and he would literally go from one meeting to another and would go to bed utterly exhausted.

Online meetings are very tiring they can lead to a lot of sensory overload because we have to focus intensely on what is said because we're missing so many of the non-verbal cues that we usually use, it is much much more tiring.

We also get physical problems from sitting staring at a screen all the time the number of councillors that have suffered severe back pain is really worrying so on this my advice would be try and alternate with phone calls at least when you're using the phone you're only concentrating, you're only expecting to hear the voice you're not staring at a stream and you can move around while you're speaking.

ll the councillors I spoke to said the volunteering by the public was absolutely fantastic and they were really proud of their communities but it also led to a big increase in their workload because they felt that they had to provide guidance reassurance and a lot of organising.

Back bench councillors had a rather different experience they really missed the meetings with officers they were generally not connecting online and felt disconnected sometimes from, from their sort of council work generally and a lot of them have had to step back because they had a lot of extra family commitments maybe they had caring responsibilities or extra work responsibilities and without exception all the councillors I spoke to said they missed the human connection new councillors had had a real baptism of fire and new leaders I felt particularly sorry for so what a time to start.

There was also some disillusionment amongst new councillors they've they sort of stood for election got elected hoping to achieve specific things for their communities and they now saw those chances slipping away councils are under such huge financial pressure the chances of delivering on some nice to have projects are very slim indeed.

Leaders and those in leadership positions are also very very worried and stressed about the financial uncertainty going forward for councils. A lot of the leaders said that they found the off-the-cuff announcements by government caused huge difficulties for them often the expectations of the public were raised but the guidance that followed for local authorities was often days or even weeks later and the drip-fed nature of those announcements without all the guidance and regulation that goes with it made life extremely difficult for them.

Same goes for the promises that were made for financial comp- compensation, they haven't all materialised and that's a cause of ongoing stress and worry for a lot of community leaders. Backbenchers again were having a different experience they were finding that it was much more difficult to hold their administrations to account a lot of people and me included find debate virtually, online council meetings it's much harder to get a good debate going and of course quite a few councillors are not blessed with super fast broadband or good broadband connections and that makes life extremely difficult.

Council groups on the whole were faring very well they kept a good connection going I think all the council leaders that all, group leaders that I spoke to had increased the frequency of their group meetings which is fantastic so there was good camaraderie but again it adds to the workload. I personally have seen a massive increase in casework particularly when lots and lots of people were furloughed I think they  have more time to contact their local leaders a lot of the cases were very complex and it wasn't easy in the beginning of lockdown to actually contact officers to get this case work sorted, I also found because people were walking around their area more they weren't commuting they were spotting more things all of which is wonderful it just adds to the workload. I mean for example, I'm on a fire authority at East Sussex and we ran a consultation during lockdown to which there was a lot of protest in the beginning but it actually was the best consultation we've ever run we had the biggest engagement and the biggest response by a million miles but again added to the workload, so yeah and a lot of councillors are genuinely struggling with this increased workload and they've got lots of caring responsibilities it's not easy working from home for everybody and a lot of council leaders I spoke to were really worried about their colleagues who when they're seeing they're not taking time out they are just working harder and harder and harder and as I said you know I've been supporting councillors both in my sort of day job and and sort of as a friend and I was asked in the beginning of lockdown to share some mental health tips for which was sent round by email so I think that can be shared with you later and in it I give some recommendations and links to some really useful web pages that provide advice on working at home, how to provide how to look after your well-being and increase your resilience.

So as I said everybody's way of coping in stressful times is very different but I do think there are similarities in the particular stresses and dangers to well-being, amongst people that work in the public sector community leaders for example, as Mimi said most people take on these roles because they want to help they want to make a positive difference to people's lives and wonderful though that is, in my experience in times of stress that can lead to them being over responsible and putting other people's needs and wants ahead of their own it can lead to feeling that they just can't stop that it's wrong to be concerned about themselves and that they have to always be conscientious, responsible and giving to others and sometimes they can even feel that it's wrong to enjoy themselves if lots of other people are suffering or there's loads to do basically you end up feeling guilty you give a lot you over give of yourself you overwork and you ignore your own needs and wants well let me tell you looking after yourself is the smart thing to do self-care is not selfish it's an absolute imperative if you need to and I do this all the time diarize time for yourself actually put it in your calendar schedule in lunch breaks don't do endless back-to-back meetings put time aside to do what you enjoy it doesn't matter whether it's exercise reading a book playing with the dog as long as it's time for you and you enjoy it.

Stick wherever possible to reasonable working hours if you find it difficult to decide what is reasonable imagine that you're talking to a dear friend what would you advise them what would you say was reasonable and stick to that it's really important I think to mark the end of the day somehow, I always start my off-duty time by changing my clothes go upstairs change that marks the end of the day and then I at least have a walk around the garden if not outside.

Dealing with this pandemic and its fallout it's going to be an ultra marathon we've got to pace ourselves we've got to find time to rest and Recuperate. Another danger with living through an experience such as this is that you get used to such a demanding environment and you then don't recognise the signs that you are too stressed until you get to the point of feeling overwhelmed so my advice would be to learn to recognise when you are becoming overloaded, maybe you will notice physical symptoms before the psychological ones.

Be aware of what's going on in your body are your shoulders really tense your neck stiff has your appetite changed, are you sleep disturbed or is your sleep disturbed maybe you don't think you're stressed but your body might be telling you that you are if you know the signs for you and everybody is different you can intervene early, intervene early when you recognise the signs and stop, look after yourself recuperate, might sound obvious but believe me in my day job I see so many people who push themselves to breaking point before they stop and you know what then they have to take out a lot more time a lot more time off to recuperate it's much quicker actually to stop earlier, and if this is something you've noticed in yourself you always just do that little bit more that little bit more ask yourself what's stopping you looking after yourself it's about learning how you self-sabotage and we will we sabotage.

I've also found that there can be a really unhealthy culture that can develop in groups workplaces or council groups unconsciously it becomes quite competitive about who can work the hardest so just be aware of that.

I'd just like to say a few words about what works for me first thing is I don't compare myself comparison is the thief of joy and it really really is, I don't aim for perfect good enough is good enough and I regularly reassess my priorities about what I expect of myself I do mindfulness Mimi mentioned this, mindfulness really is an excellent way to learn and practice what we call affect regulation, affect regulation is the ability to modulate your emotional state so that you can meet the demands and needs of your environment and the important thing about mindfulness is to take time to notice how you are feeling without judgment there aren't any good or bad emotions some may be very uncomfortable but you are allowed to feel whatever you feel just notice what your experiencing and you will realise how transient most of our feelings are and how one feeling may be covering another and then it will pass.

I also have reciprocal arrangements with a couple of good friends and I'll often ring them up and say I just need to have a rant or I just need to talk about so-and-so you know this has got me really worried these are people I can speak to in confidence including about council matters and knowing that they will hold my confidence, so build circles of support people that you can speak to regularly, for me the biggest stress reliever is playing tennis I find hitting a tennis ball really hard is great doesn't matter whether it goes in or out it's just the act of playing a social sport and hitting something. I also try to spend as much time outdoors as possible and that's going to be particularly important going into the winter and I will be starting taking vitamin D for example the NHS recommended you take it from October to March, it really helps prevent low mood and is very good for your immune system.

I have a bird feeder just inside of my office I find that very restful, I'm also sending around I think about hacking happiness chemicals there are four primary chemicals that drive positive emotions that you feel throughout the day dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins and there are a lot there's lots of information on the web about how you can stimulate the production of those happiness chemicals and crucially what worked for me actually before the pandemic started of course.

[Gillian]

Sarah can I ask you to sort of draw to a close now, thank you.

[Sarah]

As I mourned my losses I knew it was understandable to feel shocked and angry and it was going to take me time to adapt and you need to to allow your feelings, process them, before you can come to a point of acceptance and then you can go through the adjustment that you need and make the choices that you can to get your life as happy as it can be.

[Gillian]

Thank you very much indeed Sarah, if I can now turn to Ed who is our final speaker and just to remind people there are questions coming through that we have the Q&A over to you Ed, thank you.

[Ed Davie]

Thank you Gillian and thank you  to Sarah and Mimi for those really fantastic talks that I'm gonna struggle to to, to keep up with but anyway I'll do my best so I've been asked to talk about techniques for identifying dealing with stressful situations, when I told my wife I was doing this and she thought it was a little bit ironic because I do have a history of being unable to deal very brilliantly with stress and before I was a councillor I was a political journalist and much and I lived up to the stereotype by drinking far too much, drinking very problematically and in 2008 I got made redundant in the financial crash and then really you know in alcoholics anonymous they call it hitting rock bottom and I ended up in hospital, but that gave me the chance to reflect on my life and how I didn't manage my own emotions properly how I didn't manage stress properly and and how I needed to change so I haven't had a drink since that's been 11 years and I love sort of self-help books now and any kind of advice I was really enjoying what Sarah was saying about you know

various techniques and last night I was reading this by Alain de Botton who is a philosopher and it really helped me put my sort of breakdown that I had 11 years into perspective and I just read a tiny bit.

[Ed quoting Alain de Botton]Breakdowns are hugely inconvenient for everyone and so unsurprisingly there is an immediate rush to medicalise them and attempt to excise them from the scene so that business as usual can resume but this is to misunderstand what is going on when we break down. A breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunctioning it is a very real albeit very inarticulate bid for health and self-knowledge it is an attempt by one part of our mind to force the other into a process of growth self-understanding, and self-development

which it has hitherto refuse to undertake, if we can put it paradoxically it is an attempt to jumpstart a process of getting well, properly well to a stage of falling very ill.

[Ed]

And I love that because I really identified with that, that I had fallen very ill in a crisis of my own kind of making but my subconscious I think was forcing me into that in order to change my lifestyle which I have managed to do and the way that I coped with that redundancy and those problems is in real contrast to how I've managed this year with all of the things that have happened to us all, and particularly in my own life so I was made redundant again from the mental health charity I worked with in the first part of this year like a lot of people will have done from the the impact of Covid, I was also the Cabinet Member for health and adult social care at the beginning of the outbreak and so I had to manage our initial response to that outbreak and then in April I was moved to take responsibility for the portfolio of children and young people so then I had to manage the kind of gradual increased return to school for children, that was all you know potentially very stressful and difficult and at the same time we have two young children who required homeschooling and but not say it was perfect by any means but I have managed to manage that whole situation much better than I did 11 years ago, so I just thought I'd share that as a personal example and and to say that you know failure to manage stress is not, it's not necessarily

failure it just means that we may need more help and support and we need to change things and it's a sign that we need to change things, so always seek help if you do need help in my experience for me it changed my life and made me much more able to deal with things.

But obviously if we can avoid a breakdown or a crisis that is optimal, so there are lots of things that we need to do to manage our health, our well-being, our stress levels particularly as councillors, and Sarah and Mimi gave us some pointers on that, and let's face it by definition being a councillor is potentially a source of stress.

As Sarah mentioned uncertainty is a kind of, part of human life but human beings don't really like uncertainty very much and being a councillor is full of uncertainty unfortunately so being selected as a candidate is stressful and uncertain elections are stressful and uncertain, casework can be distressing and stressful certainly finding that in the children's portfolio some of the situations of the people that were responsible for it, are really distressing and dealing with colleagues I think Sarah just mentioned that you know politicians believe it or not can be egotistical and ambitious and I say that with due self-awareness, and offices sometimes can be a bit evasive and all of that can be stressful dealing with other agencies like housing associations and central government can be stressful, some of our own party members dealing with them, can be a bit stressful.

Social media is a source of stress for many of us and sometimes family and friends can be really supportive but also they don't always understand the nature of our work, especially for the pittance that we do it for so you may have spotted a problem there, lots of what we do as councillors is potentially a source of stress so it's really important that we're able to identify and manage how we do that, and you know we can't change a lot of the external factors we can't change much of the circumstances in which we work but we are in charge of ourselves and how we respond to them and in another Allain de Botton book I was reading on holiday called the Constellations of Philosophy he mentioned Socrates who is the father of western philosophy and he said know thyself for once we know ourselves we may learn how to care for ourselves think not those faithful who praise all thy words and actions but those who kindly reprove thy faults, very important for politicians the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing, it is better to change an opinion than to persist in a wrong one, and I thought that was a really sage advice from Socrates.

Don't think too much about what happened Socrates he ended up being executed by local government in Athens, but anyway that's another story and it reminded me of something that we tell ourselves in alcoholics anonymous which is to keep your own side of the street clean which kind of means you don't have control over what other people do but you do have control over your own actions and you can act in an honorable and decent way, and by doing that it takes some of the stress out of it.

Other colleagues this morning have talked about what they do to look after themselves and Sarah in particular talked about some of the scientific evidence and I think she's going to post some links on on the things that we can do to boost the positive hormones and other positive things and reduce some of the stress so the things that work for me are physical fitness, I find that absolutely imperative to deal with stress.

I think Sarah says that she plays tennis I sometimes play badminton with the leader of the council that helps both of us although he usually beats me, even though he smokes 20 a day but anyway, and that physical fitness is harder for many of us at the moment because we're all sat here at our desks and you know I used to commute to work on my bike and it would build in physical fitness into my day but now I have to like, make a conscious effort to do it so I go to the gym, but that's not for everybody and you can walk, you can run just walking up and down stairs and getting around the block anything you can do and I find by cycling, I was cycling around my ward the other day it's a fantastic way to tour your ward and see what's going on in a really quick way and eating healthily is really important, has an impact on our ability to manage stress.

I haven't had a drink of alcohol for 11 years I'm not expecting everyone to be that extreme but alcohol is a depressant, and you need to kind of manage that and make sure you're hopefully not drinking an unhealthy level and if you do require help with that then really do seek it out.

Smoking is not good for us physically or mentally, and getting the right amount of sleep is really important, and as all the speakers have said really important to pay attention to yourself and your family and give yourself time to relax and put the phone away you know I know that's really difficult and especially, but when we're sort of giving attention to our children and our partners you know we need to, we need to put the phone away my sister has a kind of a bowl next to the front door where everyone puts their phones and then pays attention to themselves to each other for the evening and which is good.

And be organised I know that's really difficult but again in my Alain de Botton book it talks about the importance of lists it says turn a jumble of worries into the most calming and intellectually noble of documents, the list which I really like that if you list things and you tick them off as you go that can be a really helpful way of managing stress.

Social media as I've mentioned can be a source of stress I used to lose entire weekends arguing with people on twitter I don't do that so much anymore and you know it's, social media can be great for reaching people and sharing views but it also can be a massive source of stress and actually you're not really usually reaching many constituents door knocking and community events and literature are much more effective all the studies have shown and don't post anything in haste when you've had a drink when you're angry or irritable, if you're not sure what you're saying is sensible then sleep on it and feel free to block or mute people

who are winding you up or who are aggressive you know you don't have to

take that and try not to argue with people I mean with due self-awareness I'm not brilliant for that but you're usually amplifying someone with hardly any followers and you're not helping yourself manage the stress, and politely ask people to email you with specific complaints rather than get into a to and fro on social media.

Another source of stress can be colleagues so when I was first elected I used to get into massive fights with people I used to get very frustrated and I see some newer colleagues doing the same thing and the point is I think being a backbencher in particular is really, can be really frustrating everything seems to take forever and it's really hard to get things done and no one seems to listen to you and you've been told you're going to have this power and you don't and but it's what I learned, what I try to impress on newer colleagues is like it's much better to try and make friends, to influence people, to learn how things work and build up your experience and change things slowly and what I've learned in my council anyway it usually takes at least five years to get anything really major done with the exception of the Covid crisis when other colleagues have mentioned we managed to get a lot of change done in a quick time and I hope we can learn from that.

Always be polite and respectful to officers I know it can be very frustrating sometimes but they're not our servants they're human beings with their own stresses and they're not our officers we're elected by our residents to help the bureaucracy deliver better for them once you kind of realise that I think that helps you manage expectations and expectations are really important for managing stress.

Constituents as I say you can get some really distressing stressful case work I think it's important to maintain a professional distance it's not our role as individuals to give individuals money and to get emotionally involved to look after their kids or their granny and for me that's the route to getting really distressed and stressed we are facilitators we're there to make the system work for people, not to be the system. If the system fails to work we should escalate it it's not our personal responsibility and this protects you and your constituent, because once you start making it personal that can be a very stressful distressing and potentially inappropriate way of dealing with things.

I found especially when I was a Scrutiny Chair I used to have some really big difficult public meetings to manage and that was a source of stress and you really need to make sure you get help from colleagues and officers to manage them in the best way possible and as I started talking about my history of alcoholism I'll end with the the serenity prayer that they say in alcoholics anonymous which is grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference and I think alcoholics or not that's a useful way of approaching our role as councillors and managing the stress that we all have to deal with every day thank you.

[Gillian]

Thank you very much indeed Ed I think there's been some incredible things that have come out from those two sessions, we are now over to Q&A and I have got some questions here before me that have come through so the first question I have here, bear with me let's get this going up here this is the thing when you've got chat and you've got Q&A okay, so this question is actually for Mimi and it's in relation to the tea boxes you're getting out on Silver Sunday and, how do you get the message out to the people who are taking part from the community so you can be inclusive to those who are isolated and possibly not on social media?

[Mimi]

A really good question actually because not everybody is on social media not everybody's online as we've discovered during this time so what we have in our areas we have all these Covid help groups that are set up and we have single point of contact for every single one of those groups and you can reach them with one email and just send a message to them and then they in turn when they're out and about in their road because we're all responsible I'm the spot for my road and when I'm out and about and I have a Whatsapp group for my road as well so I will put messages on there that are pertinent to people so it's a question of really sort of like using the people that are there at your fingertips, using volunteers that are around in our area the libraries have reopened, so there's a couple of posters up in libraries and I appreciate that not everyone's going to see those but other people do and then they will take the message back and say oh Silver Sunday tea box is going out would you like one, mum shall I put your name down on the list, and that's how it's been growing we've got about 350 people at the moment a couple of weeks to go so I'm hoping that will give us the extra 150 but it is very much especially because people are shielding and people are still very reluctant to go out there it's that word of mouth, it's the individual people it is social media and hoping that the people on social media will spread the word to other people that they know of and are aware of, and of course I also contacted all the groups that I have had in the past as guests, so I've contacted their leaders and told them what we're doing, and they've given me lists of names of people who would love to receive the boxes so it is about thinking laterally it's about thinking what would I do if I didn't have a laptop anymore, how would I get the information out then it's amazing how the old-fashioned ways really do work wonders in that respect.

[Gillian]

Thank you very much Mimi. Okay so the next one I'm going to throw out to Ed, how are you getting information to residents who are not online or use social media forums?

[Ed]

So the many many councils still have local newsletters produced by the council I know Eric Pickles when he was Secretary of State tried to stop us from doing that but many of us hung on to them, it's a useful means of

communicating with our residents so we've produced special Covid-19 related printed newsletters, magazines that we've sent to everybody in the borough all postal addresses.

We've translated some of the key information into different community languages to make sure we reached lots of lots of different communities that might otherwise not understand all of the information, and we've put up posters I personally got the council to produce like basic information posters and put them up especially around our social housing estates in that sort of communal stairwells and in notice boards and places like that.

We produced a special edition for children, around children's issues of Lambeth Talk we call it our newsletter that was sent to everyone we had on our mosaic system that we knew was you know family with children and what else have we done, we've done lots of kind of word of mouth work so several of our councillors are from Muslim backgrounds and we've got them to communicate directly with mosques and those kind of communities that where there may have been a risk of their act of worship potentially being a source of spreading infection and so we engaged with them using people who who are drawn from those communities.

So word of mouth, printed literature not just social media stuff and that has been reasonably effective.

[Gillian]

Yeah I think that's something that we were undertaking in our local authority as well we had a booklet that went out door-to-door to household so that was reaching areas that other people couldn't get by

the social media. Question for Sarah now, what training as a councillor have you identified during this pandemic whilst having to work differently?

Is Sarah there,have we lost Sarah?

[Sarah]

Yeah no I was trying to unmute it and it wouldn't sorry about that so you were be saying what training have I had as a councillor as in a politician councillor rather than –

[Gillian]

I think it's especially with your your peer mentor hat on what training as a councillor have you identified during this pandemic whilst having to work differently are there any areas of training that you feel would be helpful?

[Sarah]

Not in terms of resilience I have to say the only training I've been offered as a councillor has been in using online platforms which I was familiar with anyway I wish there was more training available it's been rather much the other way around, the council groups have come to me because I know what I do as a day job so, yeah I haven't.

[Gillian]

So I mean are there any areas that you think that that should be in place, I mean you identified that you felt there were should be more training what training would you see would be of benefit?

[Sarah]

Yeah I do about how to look after yourself and and the dangers as I said I tried to outline I mean there's so much more I could say about techniques about how to cope with feeling very anxious and so on and the mental health tips covered just a small group of those, but I do think probably as part of councillor's induction process initially should be about how do you look after yourself because this is largely a voluntary role you know councillors receive a, you know an allowance but for most people they're having to do a day job as well and probably caring duties as well and in my experience there I don't know of any council groups that have that automatically as part of a an induction process and I would like to see that become standard across the country forever.

[Gillian]

That sounds like a good idea LGA take that one on board, okay this question actually came through for Sarah but I think it's something that all of you might want to comment on so I'll read it out, it's quite a long question. I found a lot of the community were angry at the Covid-19 situation and some needed to blame somebody and the anger turned on local councillors because we were an easy target easier than the Government, we were local and wanted to respond and the more you respond and feed the person, then they continue to target you for further anger how do you deal with that as they found they had to disengage with some of those members of the community? I can ask Sarah first.

[Sarah]

Yeah and I did respond to this online I'm sorry if I've been looking down I've been trying to respond to some of the questions I had this happen to me not actually during this pandemic but I've had it with residents before, and if it continues I actually go to the monitoring officer head of legal services and will get a an officer response and that usually sort of deals with the problem, you know not in a threatening way but you know your concerns have been answered we've done all we can, and and the fact that it's come from an official source is often solves the problem but in a wider way people have been very angry during this situation. That is understandable it's like a sort of grief process and anger can be part of the griefs process, we've all lost something some people have lost a lot more than others including people they love, but we have all lost what we thought we had you know, we thought we had some certainty it's actually an illusion but we've all lost and for some people that comes out as anger I sort of tend to go into therapist mode if if I have an angry resident particularly on the phone and will do quite a bit of listening and reflecting back you know you sound angry, if people feel heard usually their anger will dissipate it's often about that but don't be afraid to ask for backup if you need it either from council colleagues or from officers if you need.

[Gillian]

Thank you.

[Sarah]

You shouldn't expect to take abuse you don't need to accept that you don't need to put up with it.

[Gillian]

Quite right. Mimi did you want to come in on anything else?

[Mimi]

Yes I mean very very very wise words from Sarah they're absolutely spot on with everything you've said but I think the other thing that can also happen in that scenario is other people see the abuse that's being dished out shall we say and they will come on board and they will start saying well actually you can't just aim this at one person or it's not one particular person's fault and that can often help to diffuse the situation but I agree with Sarah on the actual talking to people, trying to listen to what they're saying trying to understand where the anger is coming from and then actually dealing with that that for me is one of the best solutions that I've found in the past and I've been doing this for sort of 22 years not all of that was social media I have to say because we didn't have it when I was first elected back in the last millennium but I have to say it is a forum for both good and for that sort of abuse as well people have that freedom, don't they to say, or they think they do, to say what they like in any tone that they like and to adopt any stance that they want to and to attack you if they feel that's the right thing to do and they feel perfectly justified in doing it and sometimes it's when their peers come forward and say well actually that was pretty awful the way you spoke to her she's only doing her job or something like that you know we're all you know trying to get on with this we're all trying to cope, that can calm a person down as well.

[Gillian]

Thank you, the keyboard warrior. Ed did you want to add anything to that question?

[Ed]

Yeah just on the doorstep when I was first a candidate and councillor I used to be very sort of defensive, residents would moan about something and I'd say no you're wrong, actually the statistics show we're the best in the country or whatever it was and actually what I learned was that's you know not to absorb you know inappropriate or horrible or abusive stuff but people need an opportunity they don't often get to talk to people in power directly and you need to give them an opportunity to say their piece and they experience things differently from you, so you may know that the block of flats have been refurbished last year but they have a different experience of that and you need to hear that, and and let them say their piece and then try and work out a solution, but and then the online stuff like I say you know I've had all kinds of abuse and like you can start by trying to reason with people or some you just should ignore and then some you need to mute and block and you shouldn't be afraid to do that because you wouldn't answer a phone call from someone who you knew was going to shout at you and call you names and whatever and and why should we put up with it online and I remember my mum who's 80 saying to me you know every everyone used to moan about everyone in the old days but they'd slag you off in the pub and you wouldn't necessarily know about it now they do it on Twitter and you can see it and feel it and you can't help it but, you know feel from that and so we have to manage that in a different way and you know I've muted hundreds of people and that's I'm fine with that.

I think it's the empathy giving them the facts and then just coming up with the solution.

[Gillian]

Yeah okay so the next question we've got is an executive councillor who has mental health issues of their own what tips do you have for managing your own mental health whilst engaging with individuals and communities who are suffering themselves be it from anxiety fear or anger?

I'll throw that open Ed you were just about to speak I'll ask you first.

[Ed]

Oh I was just puffing my cheeks in sympathy I guess because like my alcoholism was tied up with my depression and my anxiety so I've had to kind of manage my mental health whilst dealing with other people's and like I say you do by definition, we're dealing with people in distress often in stressful situations and like I say you have to have a, you've got to empathise but you need to for me I have to maintain a certain professional distance, that it's not for me to lend them money or become personally involved in it I know that's difficult sometimes but I am here as a facilitator to make the system work for the person not to fix every individual personal problem personally, so I tried to maintain a certain amount of professional distance I try as Sarah was saying I try and debrief with people appropriately in confidence so this morning I had a big rant with a council colleague about something in children's services that's very frustrating and awful and I know it was in confidence and that helps me to manage and regulate my own emotions around it and get some advice which is really good, and you know you mustn't sort of suffer in silence and if you need counselling you know all councils should have an employment support scheme that's confidential that you should be able to access for free your WHIPS are there to support your pastoral care and you know you should get help but understand you know that you are not quite a professional, we're in a

funny kind of role aren't we but you need to maintain a sort of certain

amount of distance to protect yourself otherwise you're not able to help other people.

[Gillian]

Can I just come in on that where you mentioned WHIPS, independent groups don't actually have a WHIP so it would be a appear within your own group that you could perhaps turn to for support Anybody else want to come in on that?

[Mimi]

Can I just jump in there because I know Sarah is going to have some words of wisdom here and I need some of those words of wisdom, I just want to chip in with just saying that I think for me I found it very very hard to actually acknowledge that I myself needed help and support because I felt I had to be the one that people leaned on and that does take its toll I mean Sarah was telling us so eloquently the toll that that takes and for me it was that I want to be a hermit I just want to disappear from all

of this I just want the ground to open up and swallow me sometimes because you sort of feel overwhelmed with everybody's anxieties and everybody else's problems and issues and yet that face that I put out there I think this is probably which is why it's been useful for us as speakers as well and been it's been really good to hear you know both Sarah and Ed talk about the issues that they've been facing because it helps you to face your own and I've always tried to put this sort of face on and just say yes I'm coping I'm doing really well actually there's a whole sense of loneliness that comes with it as well because you feel that you're dealing with things and you feel that you yourself are in isolation and how can you deal with things and other people don't understand why you're taking on all these responsibilities onto your shoulders and that's quite tough and that does take a toll I mean, I've always been a bad sleeper but I'm a probably a worse sleeper now than I've ever been and I do, I mean Ed was saying about physical exercise, I do go for walks and stuff which I never ever did before and I have learned to appreciate the countryside around me I'm very fortunate in that but a lot of people don't have that privilege and it's really tough and it's learning ourselves as well and I think it's almost like being given permission to say actually I'm a human being as well and I suffer too and therefore it's you know I'm allowed to feel this way or I'm allowed to feel that way and I'm allowed to seek help if I need it, so I think that's really important and that's a big message that I'm taking away from today so thank you both for that.

[Gillian]

Thank you. Sarah can I actually ask you a different question because there's quite a few questions so that we can get through some of them s there any advice you can give for coping with a sudden increase in

responsibility and becoming a lot higher profile in the press?

[Sarah]

Yes I've been through this myself in the past I don't enjoy the press stuff, you can feel intruded upon you are in effect more intrigued upon, you become more of a public figure and yes it can be difficult to manage if you can't change the outside environment what you do have control over is how you feel. You can choose of course when something awful happens or when you're feeling nervous you might not be able to control that initial emotion you'll either feel sad or angry or very scared but thereafter you can choose how you feel and that's what I was talking about with mindfulness and affect regulation and talking to somebody about how you feel you know if you are scared by it or you are starting to notice that you feel more withdrawn as you become more of a public figure or that's how you feel, do articulate it we know from MRI scans that there's a big difference in the sort of, again the sort of healthy happiness producing chemicals in your brain, there's a lot more activity when we articulate how we feel and what's going on for us rather than just thinking about it and we think that's because we've evolved to become social creatures so you know we're social animals so actually saying out loud to another, you know we are sort of driven towards that so talking to other people and and so on and having very firm boundaries both Mimi and Ed were giving this to the last question it's really important to have your own firm boundaries, whether it's abuse, whether it's with workload whether it's with when you're going to deal with the press and what access you're going to give to people you need to decide for yourself where your boundaries are and and stick to them.

[Gillian]

Thank you very much for that I think today's session has been really interesting and there's been some really key stuff that's come out from that for example I mean when Mimi was speaking at the beginning the some of the targeted projects that have come out as a consequence of Covid, but then things that can be a continuum so the BAME work that you've been putting in place, the Silver Sunday that's proved interesting I've seen on on the chat so perhaps that's some information that you would like to share on the events page for us, and some of the examples of what Sarah has been talking about and how backbenchers felt and the pressures that they may have been feeling of not that engagement and absolutely the guilt trip that we all go down of how we all feel that we have to solve the problem but as Ed said that we are just a facilitator we don't actually take and do the job ourselves on board and I think fundamental to all of this is where we do all tend to ignore our own personal health and our own situations with all those compounding pressures that there are around us healthy diet, alcohol, I know I've been drinking more alcohol as a consequence of this wrong move, and then it's something that you need to pile back on and try and get in place and I love the idea of the diary and diarising my own own free time in there so I think there's been some really important stuff and I know that some of you will be sharing that information with the LGA so that we can put that online.

So I think that just brings me to say that that's actually brought us to the end of the session and I really do hope that there's been something that all of you can take away and learn from and put into practice.

Can I say a huge thank you to Mimi Sarah and Ed for their time and their knowledge and the recording of the webinar will be available on the LGA's website I believe that it's going to be by the middle of the week and that will be along with information on the Q&A's that have come out from today's session and any resources that have been shared as a consequence of that.

You will also be able to find a full list of all of the other webinars the LGA are putting out over the coming weeks on the LGA website and that just leads me to say thank you for signing in today and keep up the good and excellent work that you're doing but please remember your own health and stay safe. Thank you very much thank you.

[ENDS]

Presentations

Reflections from members on how to maintain your resilience during a pandemic (pdf, 293KB)
Cllr Sarah Osborne, East Sussex County Council

Unanswered questions from the webinar

Useful resources

Highlighting Political Leadership The LGA’s range of political leadership development programmes help to support and develop councillors ensuring our local politicians are confident and capable.

E-module on handling stress and resilience This e-learning resource examines the pressures faced by councillors, the importance of recognising stress and factors which can affect one’s ability to cope with stress.