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Safe Space – it feels like I’m running a marathon

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Welcome to the Safe Space – where managers can share their issues, and gain advice from top learning & development consultants.

Here at =mc we encourage every participant we meet on our programmes to get in touch if they have specific issues they want to follow up on. From this we hear some common problems, issues, challenges, and worries. In this regular feature, we share some of those challenges, and our advice, for dealing with them.

This month we respond to a very busy manager, in need of some encouragement and techniques to deal with both a marathon and a mountain simultaneously.

What’s the issue

Hello =mc team, I’m a manager of a reasonably large team: I manage three team leaders, who between them supervise a team of around 20 staff. We provide a front line service in the social work sector, and so our work is both reactive and unpredictable at times.

As the senior person in the team I’m also responsible for longer term team planning, I head up several projects, and I am responsible for building crucial relationships with stakeholders such as commissioners. It’s a lot to manage when things are relatively quiet, and right now it feels like more than ever.

I’m managing several big things that are all coming to a head at once: a service review, a team development initiative and a whole suite of new programmes for our service users. These are all exciting areas of work that will make a big difference to the people we work with.

I also have to keep up with my every-day-duties alongside the big projects. There are a lot of time-heavy and repetitive processes and to be honest, a lot of them are pretty boring. Finding ways to do all of this work has been exhausting.

Each single thing is manageable in its own way, and I know what I need to do. But adding it all together makes it feel like I’m at constantly at mile 18 of a marathon – the end looks a really long way away, I’m exhausted and my energy reserves are nearly empty.

As a working parent, I don’t have the option to put in more hours to get through it. I move between slogging away at it, feeling OK as I get things done, and then feeling utterly overwhelmed when I think about just how much I still have to get through. When I do feel bad about things, I know I’m wasting time on worrying and not just getting on with it. It would be great to have some ideas of how to get me over the finish line. I’m really hoping you can help me, and I bet I’m not the only one having a challenge like this!

What our consultants say

Laura

Hello busy Manager!

You definitely have a lot on, and you’re right, lots of people will empathise with your current situation. From what you’ve said, there’s a real mix of ‘business as usual’ work going on, along with waves of reactionary work, and all these project-based tasks on top.

It sounds like some of it might really be interesting for you, and some of it might not be exactly thrilling – though absolutely necessary work. What helps me get through the latter is to find my motivation, a reason to keep going that I can connect to. What might that look like for you?

If you’re struggling to find that motivation, try finding the purpose in these tasks. Remind yourself where they come from and what impact they have. Even the most mundane of tasks must exist for a reason. And if it doesn’t seem to have a clear purpose then you can question why you’re even doing it. Then you have the option of not doing it, or at least putting it off until after the marathon. Good luck!

Rachel

Dear Manager, I really enjoy running and challenges, so this metaphor is something I can really understand.

When you are doing tough physical challenges, it’s helpful to break up your training and gradually extend your goals. Building up your progress each time. It can be the same with your workload. Can you break it into chunks and stages, for each workstream or task area? Then you only need to focus on completing each chunk – putting one foot forward at a time.

When I’m training, I am really joyful when I hit a goal or milestone. Try to intersperse your chunks with energisers and rewards – things that bring you joy in your work. Maybe this is connecting with your team – having a tea/coffee break for no other reason than to have a sit down and a chat. Maybe this is taking time to catch up on some reading – for the joy of learning without a need to be productive. Whatever works for you, this chunking process can give you an energy boost to do the next phase.

Petia

Hello Manager, I’m glad you pointed out that the answer here isn’t working more hours ‘to get on top of things’. That wouldn’t solve the wider issues, just the short term crunch. The reality of the not-for-profit sector is that demand for your services will be increasing. It’s likely your workload will increase as well. It’s crucial to be aware of your boundaries, your right to a home and personal life, and a right to step away from work so you can relax, recharge, and enjoy yourself.

You describe this as a unique period – where lots of things are a colliding. I hope this is the case, and you are not in a permanent pattern of overly ambitious expectations. I flag this because we need to be so aware of the long term damage we can do to ourselves when we are running to keep up all the time. Burnout is a real risk here, and so do keep an eye on these expectations. It could be worth a chat with your manager to discuss priorities, longer term plans and what support can be put in place.

Don’t forget your team too, can you delegate to them or lean on them for support during this very busy period? You don’t have to do it all, and you don’t have to do it alone.

Philly

Hello there, thanks so much for reaching out to us – another task completed on your very long list! I agree with all the advice above: find purpose for motivation, chunk and energise, and keep an eye on the longer term risks for this kind of working.

From what you have said, there is an end in sight. You are at mile 18 and need to get to the end. Imagine how great that will feel – when you see all these fantastic projects come to fruition and know that you have made a real difference! Like running though, taking on this level of work could become something you get very used to, and even seek out, as you enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done and no doubt the huge impact you can have for your service users.

Take care at the end of this busy period to review: what decision making process did you follow to prioritise? What helped you deliver good outcomes? What challenges did you overcome on the way? What would you do differently next time? And keep an eye on this volume of work – as Petia says, don’t let overwork become normalised. Putting in a planned point of review now will give you the finishing line and a place to stop and think before you go racing again. Best of luck to you, and do let us know how you get on.

What’s next?

If you’d like to explore ways of handling for situations like this, contact us online or call 020 7978 1516 to discuss similar challenges and how we might be able to help.

If you’d like some advice on in the next issue of the Safe Space, email us on safespace@managementcentre.co.uk. Whilst we can’t promise to publish all the requests we receive, we will offer advice by email as a minimum.

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Laura Slater

About Laura Slater

Laura specialises in project governance and management, as well as leadership and management development. Laura has 8 years’ experience in the charity sector, in particular developing and delivering regional...

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Rachel Whittle

About Rachel Whittle

Rachel specialises in management development and personal effectiveness. Rachel has over 10 years’ experience in the charity sector. Before joining =mc, she specialised in direct marketing and was a...

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Petia Tzanova

About Petia Tzanova

Petia specialises in leadership, management and project management. She has over 16 years of experience working in the non-profit, arts & culture, higher education and social enterprise sectors. Petia...

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Philly Graham

About Philly Graham

Philly specialises in communications, leadership and management development and personal effectiveness. She is an accredited coach, action learning set facilitator and a CIPD Learning and Development Associate. Philly’s career...

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