We recently spoke with Simon Blake, the Chief Executive of the leading social enterprise, Mental Health First Aid England. He also Chairs the Headspace International Advisory Board, the Support After Suicide Partnership and the Dying Matters Campaign.
We can't think of a better person to speak to about his relationship with technology and the impact that he feels technology has on employees and work/life balance. Simon has signed up to take part in this year's techtimeout tuesday on 29th November 2022. Keep reading to find out why he's taking part and why he's encouraging others to do the same.
what is your favourite way to disconnect from the workplace at the end of the day?
I love being outside as much and as often as I can. I tend to cycle to and from work. I live just off Clapham Common and try to go running every day Monday to Friday. My husband and I have a dog called Dolly, who used to run with me, but has given up on running and needs to walk. I generally try not to take my phone when I am walking Doll, so I can enjoy her and the Common.
how do you encourage your colleagues to do the same?
Wellbeing has been in the DNA of MHFA England since its inception thanks to the founder Poppy Jaman, and many others who created this wonderful social enterprise. And we continue to run in that tradition. As the Board collectively we really care about wellbeing. We lead and operate with care and compassion. We have done all the way through the pandemic and will continue to do so.
People at MHFA England work really hard. We have built in space to connect; we have all together days once a month, guidance to make meetings 25 and 50 minute meetings (that could save you 1 hour of meeting time a day!); we have meeting free times throughout the week. And managers are expected to be having continual conversations about wellbeing, alongside conversations about performance.
Everyone who joins MHFA England trains as a MHFAider which has a strong emphasis on self-care including learning about managing our ‘stress container’. We have wellbeing weeks twice a year where we shut down completely.
I write a note to thank everyone at the end of every week and always sign off with an encouragement to think about self-care over the weekend. Who knows if anyone takes note. I hope so!
what impact do you think technology has on employees?
Technology used well is a force for good. So much good. And thank goodness we had technology through the pandemic. Who knew what it was possible to do on a Teams or Zoom platform!
But it isn’t always used well – within organisations, across organisations or by individuals. The range, breadth and pace at which information comes in can be difficult to stay on top of. It can be stimulation overload. It can be unnecessary (lets start by rewriting the rules on cc emails!) and it can be overwhelming, particularly when so many people are still working at home and we have emails on our phone, which we take to bed to be our alarm clock or to send messages before sleep.
We have to find ways as organisations and individuals to create disciplines that harness the good and reduce the negative. It means all of us having enough understanding about how the brain works, so we can make choices which support wellbeing.
It also requires all of us as employers to think about how we use technology in our companies to achieve our purpose and support the wellbeing of our people.
how do you maintain a good work/life balance?
I work hard and I play hard. Apparently, my Granny used to say a good life would involve 8 hours work, 8 hours sleep and 8 hours play. She died well before smartphones, so I am not sure what she would think of my screen time!
I tend to avoid the phrase work/life balance and like to strive for a balanced life that work plays an important part of. It may sound pedantic, but my life doesn’t start when I finish work. I am incredibly lucky that at MHFA England we can work flexibly in ways that work for individuals and the business. Life has all sorts of twists, turns, highs and lows and the more flexible employers can be the better.
Technology is of course a great enabler of flexibility and paradoxically contributes to an, ‘always on culture’ which we know is damaging for our mental health because our brains are not resting. If we run a marathon, we soak our feet and give them a rest; we need to apply that principle to our brains too. We have to look after our brains, they have to rest if they have the best chance of looking after us.
do you find that taking time away from your screens benefits your mental health?
100% yes. I grew up without mobile technology and got my first mobile well after graduating from Cardiff University. That means I remember living overseas and arranging a reverse charge telephone call once a fortnight. I can remember holidays without mobile phones and how good it is to disconnect from literally everything. Also how wonderful it was to come back to work without an inbox – maybe a few letters in your in tray and some messages in the message book. It was bliss.
I *try* to recreate that feeling of complete disconnection for at least one week each year, by turning my phone off when I am on holiday and not looking at anything – no news, no Twitter, no WhatsApp. Nothing. It is an important reminder that we are not our phones, we are not our inboxes and we can tune into the awe and wonder of what is around us.
On a weekly basis I deliberately leave my phone indoors when I go to the shops, take Doll (my dog) for a walk or go for a run, so I am not looking down at it constantly. I am also a horse rider and I often ride out without a phone. I drive to horse events on my own which means I cannot look at my phone for hours on end, and it enables me to breathe in the moment. When I run or go to the gym without my phone, it is a different experience. I often see more and feel more. I am more connected to myself and that around me.
why are you taking part in techtimeout tuesday this year?
Tech is such an important part of our everyday lives, but we can see the negative impacts creeping up on us. I firmly believe we must all be super conscious of the impact of tech on our brain, our working and social habits; and in particular our ability to get things done and to manage stress. We haven’t firmed up our plans yet, but we will definitely be shutting down our laptops for a while and doing something that will boost our awareness, our curiosity and our wellbeing.
would you recommend that others take part?
Yes, because it is important we are having the conversations about technology; how to make sure it works for our organisations and us as individuals, rather than making us unproductive at best and unwell at worst.
Thank you Simon for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. It's fantastic to hear you're an advocate for healthy screen-use. We hope others will be inspired to consider whether they feel their brain is getting sufficient rest from screens.
The work that Simon and the team at MHFA England do is incredibly important in the world we live and work in.
For more information on the organisations, boards and campaigns that Simon works with and supports, please visit:
- Mental Health First Aid England
- Headspace International Advisory Board
- The Support After Suicide Partnership
- The Dying Matters Campaign.
For more information on techtimeout tuesday and to sign up your workplace click here. We send you a free digital resource pack to give you all you need to get involved.