The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (18th to 24th of May) is ‘kindness’. It was changed from the originally planned theme of ‘sleep’. The change of theme is but one of a multitude of changed plans that have been forced upon us all by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Mental Health Foundation coordinates the activities that mark the week and this year is encouraging us to base conversations about mental health in the context of being kind to each other. Indeed, their Chief Executive was quoted as having said “Now, more than ever, we need to rediscover kindness in our daily lives”.
In writing this blog about mental health awareness, I considered writing about the more familiar mental health themes such as the need for increased funding, parity of esteem challenges, inadequacy of services for children and suicide prevention. However, considering the current sociopolitical context in which the government is being blamed for locking down too late, in which the ‘entente cordiale’ between scientists and politicians is beginning to crumble and in which leaders are challenged by the very difficult decisions that lay ahead; it seemed obvious to me that I had to write about kindness.
Furthermore, it occurred to me that saying worthy things about themes like kindness is what senior organizational leaders do from time to time, usually followed by a return to the prevailing stress-inducing reality of daily organisational life. The critical question for leaders is how to optimise the benefits of a kinder more compassionate approach to leadership in the struggle to recover from the devastating public health, sociocultural and socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic.
At a societal level increased kindness is a striking feature of how we are trying to cope with the enormity of the pandemic induced crisis. The number of people who signed up to be volunteers, the weekly ritual of clapping for NHS/social care staff, the astonishing generosity of giving that supported Captain Tom Moore’s garden walk, and the prioritization of supermarket services for the elderly and vulnerable, are just a few of the public manifestations of a kinder more generous societal spirit.
The task of rebuilding the country will be arduous and requires the collective effort in mitigating the short to medium term negative impact of the pandemic. It is abundantly clear from the emerging research that mental health problems will rise inexorably over the next few months with attendant consequences for mental health and social care services.
Against that background the quantum of ‘leadership challenges’ facing the government, public and private sector are unprecedented. Some very finely balanced but extraordinarily difficult decisions will need to be made affecting the way we live, work and socialise. Kind leadership will be necessary to address the mental health consequences of job losses, economic depression and constrained leisure and cultural activity.
While not seeking to paint too bleak a picture of the next few months and years, it is particularly important to emphasise the public mental health dimensions of kindness. And in so doing highlight the present continuous nature of the need to rediscover and foster kindness. For those interested in more scholarly disquisitions on the topic of kindness applied to policy and healthcare I will signpost you a blog and a book, the details of which I touch on below
Julia Brownlie and Simon Anderson in a 2018 paper for the Carnegie UK Trust offer an interesting commentary on kindness in support of their contention that ‘kindness has a lot to offer public policy and practice’. They contend that kindness is unobligated, infrastructural, social, relational, self-narrative, contingent, radical and animating. For each feature listed they provide a rationale based on relevant research, they go on to assert that ‘we are used to thinking about kindness as a disposition, as a characteristic that some people just have, But actually it is a practice that involves relational and ultimately, social and political choices about which and whose needs we decide to notice and respond to’.
John Ballat and Penelope Campling in a compelling book titled ‘Intelligent Kindness -reforming the culture of healthcare’ argue very persuasively, in my view, for ‘policy makers, managers, educators and clinical staff to apply and nurture intelligent kindness in the organisation and delivery of care, and to offer advice to as to what this approach means in practice’.
In conclusion, I ask leaders to consider the following 3 questions during the mental health awareness week and in the weeks ahead.
- What does kindness mean to me?
- How can I be more kind to myself?
- How can I be more kind to others?
I fervently believe in the difficult days ahead the answers to these questions will be crucial for leaders in dealing with the numerous ‘wicked problems’ that the COVID-19 pandemic leaves it is wake.
- Brownlie J, Anderson S. Not random but radical? Beyond bumper sticker versions of kindness Carnegie UK Trust (cited May 20 2020)
- Ballat J and Campling P. Intelligent Kindness – reforming the culture of healthcare. RCPsych Publications; first Edition (July 2011)
Dr Tim Ojo
Dr Tim Ojo is a Consultant Psychiatrist, coach, mediator and trainer. He works at the frontline of mental health care and was previously an Executive Medical Director and Director of Quality. He is Senior Founding Fellow of the Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management. He is currently the Associate Registrar for Policy Support at the Royal College of Psychiatry.
Conflicts of Interest
I have read and understood the BMJ policy of declaration of interests and have the following interests to declare. I have been a reviewer for BMJ Leader in the last few months. I also am the Lead coach for FMLM’s coaching network and run Eko Consulting Ltd that and have coached a number of senior leaders in the NHS.