Thursday, 26 February 2015

Families United

Last Friday I spent the day 'on the shop floor' with some of our families and parenting staff at the end of an intensive course of work with several families - parents and young people. We call the course 'Families United' and it runs every day for a whole week during school holidays. The whole family is invited to come along. In the morning session the parents meet in one room while the children are in another room. At lunchtime everyone joins together with the staff for sandwiches followed by fun activities for the families all together in the afternoon.

The morning sessions for parents include some teaching for example about brain development of children, what children and young people need from their family to grow up well and parenting skills but also time to share and reflect on their experiences of growing up, how they learnt about parenting, what it means to them to be a parent, what they feel about their children and so on. If you've ever been on an intensive training week (on any subject) you will know that they can be a very powerful experience.

Meanwhile the children are engaged in creative activities with staff while talking about similar topics. Being so closely involved with the families, the staff can encourage parents and children to try out new ways of relating to each other and to praise attempts to be different. At the end of each day the staff have a debriefing sharing observations and understandings of children and parents so that everyone can encourage and reinforce changed behaviours.

Last Friday was the final day so I was privileged to sit in on the final sessions and hear parents share the things they had learned that they intend to keep going. At lunch it was evident that relationships between some family members had begun to heal during the week. After lunch the staff gave everyone a gift as well as framed photographs taken during the week and certificates to congratulate everyone on completing the week.

One thing which struck me was the importance of respect in family life. Families are held together by very strong attachments and children rely absolutely on their parent(s) for survival until they are old enough to fend for themselves. Yet we cannot take those ties for granted, it is too easy to verbally abuse and continually put down those closest to us just because they are there. Civility and mutual respect are the oil that enables families to meet the needs of everyone in the family, which is after all what families are for.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Decent jobs

On Friday I was interviewed by journalist Tom Esslemont for BBC Radio 4 news about poverty in the north east. The point made by everyone he spoke to was that there are not enough full-time, well-paid, long-term jobs in the north east. Today the front page of The Journal picked up on the same theme. The Trussell Trust (which runs Food Banks) reports that 22% of those seeking help this year were referred because of 'low income' meaning people in jobs and that this is up 6% on the previous year.

To illustrate the point, over the weekend I found out that the retail chain Next recently changed the employment contracts of pretty much all their shop staff to just 13 hours a week apparently to reduce the amount they have to pay for national insurance. Staff who have mortgages, families, childcare costs, financial commitments and could formerly rely on a set number of hours work each week were suddenly and arbitrarily reduced to 13 hour contracts worked over 3 days each week. I am sure Next would say that staff can increase the number of hours they work to suit themselves by exchanging shifts - a system operated online. But the demand for extra hours is so great, shifts are snapped up in seconds.

I heard too that Top Shop only employ staff aged under 18 so that they only have to pay £3.79 an hour Minimum Wage instead of £5.13 for those age 18 to 20 or £6.50 for those age over 21. The Minimum Wage is the minimum employers can legally pay; the Living Wage Foundation recommend the minimum should be £7.85 an hour outside London.

At what point did it become acceptable for any employer to have such limited regard for the legitimate needs of their employees? Mahatma Gandhi listed 'Commerce without morality' amongst his 7 deadly sins:
The seven deadly sins
Mahatma Gandhi
Wealth without work,
Pleasure without conscience,
Knowledge without character,
Commerce without morality,
Science without humanity,
Worship without sacrifice, and
Politics without principle.

And in 'The Wealth of Nations' (1776) Adam Smith identified five moral problems created by capitalism: impoverishing the spirit of the workers, creating cities in which anonymity will facilitate price-fixing, expanding the ranks of the rich who lack virtue, inducing government to create monopolies and privileges, and separating ownership and management in ways that lead to what we now call agency problems.

Fortunately not all retailers are behaving like 19th century mill owners; I did also hear about cosmetic shop Lush who do pay their staff the Living Wage rate.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The art of helping

I have been re-reading a wonderful book called 'Zen in the Art of Helping' written by David Brandon, published in 1976. Everyone has at some point been both a helper and been helped. We know what good helping is like and we can also tell when some well intentioned person is actually hindering rather than helping us. Brandon's essential point is that the best kind of helper is someone who is wholly present for you - not distracted by other concerns, not needing something from you, not simply following a procedure but willing to enter into your world and try to understand it with you.

David Brandon was a mental health social worker and social work teacher. He was writing shortly after the creation of local authority Social Services Departments (in 1972) when it seemed possible that social work could transform society. He would not recognise the sort of social work practised in local authorities today. Each person in need is processed to 'assess' their need or the 'risk of harm' they present to themselves and others; decide whether or not their circumstances meet the 'threshold' for 'intervention' and if so, 'allocate' a 'package' of support. Bureaucracy replaces the human, helping relationship. The best that can be said for it is it protects the worker and attempts to impose fair treatment for each service user.

Tolstoy wrote the story of an Emperor who wishes to know three things:

What is the best time to do each thing?
Who are the most important people to work with?
What is the most important thing to do?

The sages and philosophers are unable to answer these questions satisfactorily so the Emperor himself goes to visit a hermit in the mountains. The hermit does not answer his questions but in the course of events the Emperor comes to understand these answers:

The most important person to work with is the one in front of you.
The most important thing to do is to make them happy.
And the best time is now.

How do you do that? Well, the psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom said 'It's the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals.' Which brings us right back to being wholly present for the person in need.

The voluntary sector does not have a monopoly on good helping but it is common in our sector. It is precious and we must not take it for granted. Pressures of money and time could easily extinguish it and we would end up no better than the public services. As voluntary sector managers we must ensure that we protect and enhance the conditions that enable good helping to bloom.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Time to talk day

Today we are all asked to have a 5 minute conversation about mental health. It's a campaign to make everyone more aware of mental illness.

It got me thinking about people in my own circle who have or have had mental illness. I was surprised how many people there are and the variety of difficulties they have encountered: clinical depression, anorexia, suicidal thoughts, self harm, psychosis, dementia. It seems like a lot and I don't think my circle of friends, relatives and acquaintances are unusual.

Fortunately all have recovered or at least coped through the care of family and friends, clinical care and the passage of time. But I don't remember it being easy for any of them to talk about it either at the time or since.

Why is there a barrier to discussing mental health? Is it stigma, fear or shame?   Feelings that would be absent for many (but not all) physical health conditions.

The Children North East 'BU' mental health and wellbeing project has produced this short video 'Beneath the Mask' which has a simple message about the stigma of mental illness - always do the friendliest thing. The video makes clear that does not have to be talking, it can be as simple as being attentive and respectful.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

People's Postcode Lottery

Last week I attended the annual People's Postcode Lottery charity gala in Edinburgh along with Chief Executives of the 50+ charities supported by People's Postcode Lottery. It was a glittering affair celebrating a massive increase in the number of People's Postcode Lottery players in the UK during 2014 and the £68.6 million raised for good causes across Great Britain and internationally.

Last December it was reported that together with its sister lotteries in The Netherlands and Sweden the group is the third largest donor in the world after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. Postcode Lotteries have given £430.3 million to good causes since being founded in 1989.

Here in the north east last Saturday players of People’s Postcode Lottery in Whitley Bay celebrated a £2 million win shared between them. Children North East is fortunate to be supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, our congratulations and grateful thanks to the lucky winners.

By comparison the UK National Lottery has raised £32 billion for good causes since it was founded in 1994. Charities can apply to the National Lottery for grants for specific work, but the application process is time consuming, highly competitive and there is no guarantee of success. If the application is successful the grant is ‘restricted’ meaning it can only be spent on the purpose for which it was given. Restricted grants are time limited and it is increasingly difficult for charities to secure money to continue to fund useful, successful projects long term once the grant comes to an end.

Unlike the National Lottery, money given to charities by People’s Postcode Lottery is ‘unrestricted income’ meaning that the charity can decide how to spend the money. Unrestricted income from local fundraising, gifts or People’s Postcode Lottery enables charities such as Children North East to continue to provide services to local children and young people in need.

At the gala People's Postcode Lottery surprised everyone by announcing an extra £25,000 for every supported charity, I was stunned and delighted. This is very good news when the need for our work is constantly growing.