Feeling stressed? You’re not alone…

Feeling stressed? You’re not alone…

By Mark Shrimpton, People Director, Martin James Network

As April 2021, is stress awareness month, I’ve been considering how I’ve responded to stress over the last 12 months. And I would like to take this opportunity to share some of the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on myself.

Millions of people around the UK have experienced high levels of stress this year. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 74% of adults have felt so much stress at some point during the pandemic that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

Research shows that stress damages both our physical health (it can potentially lead to heart disease, problems with our immune system, insomnia and digestive problems) and our mental health including anxiety and depression. This can lead on to suicidal thoughts and it’s been shown that suicide is the biggest killer of people under the age of 35. This is more deadly than cancer and car accidents. Men are three times more likely to take their own life than women.

The Stress Management Society recently collaborated with Huawei to conduct a survey on stress. They found that 65% of people in the UK have felt more stressed since the COVID-19 restrictions began in March 2020. This research made me consider how I have felt since the restrictions began. Although I’m in a high pressure role, in the past I’ve been able to cope with stresses and concerns by having clear boundaries between work and personal time, this enables me to switch off both physically and mentally. I talk to colleagues about work when I am in the office, building face to face relationships. And when I am at home, I am able to relax with my family and children, Jake and Olivia. Even in times of what others would see as high pressure, I’ve previously been able to keep a clear relaxed mind and focus on the key points needed to invariably resolve an issue.

However, since the pandemic and restrictions started, I have felt and reacted differently to issues. With isolation, at times, my mood dipped significantly and negatively. Leaving me with the feeling that I’m unable to cope with all of the different issues that COVID has brought, whether that has been work-related, or working and home schooling the children, or just on a personal level.

At times, I’ve felt like I’ve been failing and not having an impact and simple issues such as misreading an email have escalated quickly in my mind. Without being able to discuss things face to face and resolve misunderstandings quickly in the office, these issues have played on my mind. On occasion this has led to insomnia, waking at 3am in the morning worrying about some minor work issue and all the possible resolutions, before falling asleep at 5am. When I wake up, the resolutions are fully forgotten! All of these thoughts tend to occur when I’ve not had contact with people 1:1 for a few days or my contact has been through large Team meetings.

These “swings” in mood become more pronounced the longer the lockdown has gone on, especially since January 2021, when the days have seemed so long. When I consider that I or none of my family have been furloughed, made redundant or contracted COVID, I understand that I’ve been in a privileged position through the pandemic and, at times I’ve questioned myself as to why I should be suffering stress and pressure compared to those who have had a much more difficult experience.

When I haven’t been in a low mood and look back though, the irony is it that all of the pressure and stress I have felt, is down to my own expectations on myself. Expectations that I could do better and that there must be something else I can do. Yes, it’s been an extremely busy time and with challenges that HR or People Teams have never faced before, but all of the pressure and stress I have felt has been through my own expectations and not from others.

As an introverted People Director, I’ve felt unable to talk to others about how I’m feeling directly and, at times, I’ve exacerbated my stress by keeping it internally to myself. This is despite knowing of all the support structures in place, whether that’s via our team of mental health champions, external and independent counsellors, mental health resources available via our TalkOut app or the support of the leadership team within Martin James Network.

So how have I reacted to these stresses?

The first point is that I’ve been able to identify when I’ve been feeling low (some times quicker than other times) and recognise that I need to do something about it. Sometimes, that has been a simple resolution such as picking up the phone (and not Teams) to have a conversation with someone and clarifying points rather than emailing back and forth. I can’t tell you how many times I built something up in my mind over the last 12 months based on a misread email and then resolved it in a 10 second conversation later in the week.

Other times it’s been about asking for feedback, and asking my team “How am I doing?” “What can I be doing differently?” “How are you feeling?” To sense-check if the issues in my mind are as large as I think they are. It’s been about ensuring that I have a break from work, ensuring that I take annual leave, even if it has meant “holidaying” in the lounge for a few days, rather than working in the kitchen. I’ve heard people say that it’s a waste of leave, to save it for when you can go somewhere, but the difference even 24 hours has made or a long weekend off has made to my own mental health has been enormous.

In addition, I’ve forced myself to take walks at least at the start and end of each day and to get fresh air rather than remaining in my house all day. When I can, I’ve taken walking meetings and walking lunches to help too. Equally, I’ve also taken opportunities to go into the office when possible (in a socially distanced way), to meet and talk to people and clarify some points that, working from home, would feel like they could take weeks to fix.

It’s these techniques that have helped, but I still need to identify when I’m feeling stressed and what I can do to help myself further. Individually we need to understand what is causing us personal stress, and learn what steps we can take to reduce it for ourselves and those around us.

There are many steps that could be taken, however they may include:

Knowledge – what is causing you stress; anticipate stressful periods and plan for them; develop strategies to help you cope with stress.

Feelings – don’t suppress your feelings, acknowledge them to yourself and share with others; learn to be flexible and adaptable.

Behaviour – Use your free time productively; avoid blaming others for your situation; provide positive feedback to others; learn to say no or set boundaries; acknowledge problems as they appear.

Support – Ask for direct help and be receptive when it is offered; tell those that support you how much you appreciate them.

Thoughts – Challenge your “musts” and “shoulds”; don’t jump to conclusions; remember the positives rather than the negatives.

Lifestyle – Keep healthy and eat and drink healthily; practice some form of exercise; plan your use of free time and seek variety and change of paces.

Personal development – Practice mindfulness; establish a personal sense of direction; maintain a sense of proportion.

Not all of these steps will work for everyone, but being aware of them and practicing only a few can make a difference. This year’s theme of Stress Awareness Month of “Regaining Connectivity, Certainty and Control’ ties into this.

Within the Martin James Network, we have a team of Mental Health Champions supported by the TalkOut Group who act as confidants and signposts to those who want to talk to someone independent. We hope that this blog promotes a better understanding of the needs and feelings of others, and helps you to seek support if you need it.



If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one and would like expert advice please check out the following mental health charity helplines


The Martin James Foundation; fearless champions for reforming alternative care

The Martin James Foundation; fearless champions for reforming alternative care

By Justin Rogers, CEO of Martin James Foundation

I have been reflecting on some of the experiences I have had, witnessing the lived realities of children who are growing up in institutions.

Many of you know about the research I have been undertaking in childcare institutions in South East Asia. Some of the homes I have visited have 500 children residing, where they often grow up in isolation from both their families and communities.

It is estimated that 80% of the children in these orphanages have family members. Their placement may be driven by poverty and the parents’ desire for their children to be educated, giving them better life chances. The staff often seem kind enough to the children and they are doing their best, but they are caring for large numbers of children, and often the staff to children ratios are too low.

One state orphanage I visited had two members of staff on twelve-hour shifts, caring for thirty infants under the age of 12 months. Some of the babies were clamouring for attention whilst others looked distant, resigned to the reality that attention will not be forthcoming.

Whenever I am confronted with these types of experiences, I always end up questioning: is this good enough for these children? I then employ the test I used to assess and support foster carers in the UK: would I leave a member of my family here? And would I feel safe in the knowledge that they were being cared for?

Unfortunately, most of the large-scale residential homes I have witnessed would not pass that test. The experience of witnessing these harsh realities has provided the motivation for me to commit fearlessly to promoting the reform of alternative care for children. Because these children that through no fault of their own, find themselves in these situations, need fearless champions.

I find myself ‘feeling the fear’ when I am chairing meetings with Government ministers or presenting talks to networks of NGOs. But as the saying goes, I feel that fear and do it anyway because children in those institutions don’t have the power or opportunities to make change.

Being part of the Martin James Network has afforded me the opportunity to work with colleagues that are doing this for some of the world’s most vulnerable children on a daily basis. Recently, the MJF team were on a call with UNICEF and the Government, developing a foster care handbook in Madagascar. On the same day, our colleagues from Key Assets Canada were training practitioners in Colombia on the value of family-based care.

If you reflect on what goes on in our teams and across our network, it’s clear that we are a group of people committed to making a positive social impact. We are fearless!

The future of workplace culture by Chief People Director Mark Shrimpton

The future of workplace culture by Chief People Director Mark Shrimpton

A fearless future is a world where people are treated equally. Where everyone’s view is as important as each other. Regardless of their age, gender, race and ethnicity, faith, class or sexuality or any other personal characteristic.

Part of this fearless future is recognising that nobody is ever just one thing.

Every person is a collection of characteristics and no single issue should be prioritised over another. As an example, most organisations have a gender diversity programme looking to improve the number of women in leadership. However, the outcome of the initiative is often positive only for women who tend to be “white, middle class, heterosexual and able-bodied”.

By only focusing on one element, we’re telling some people they need to wait their turn and, as a result, such policies can be divisive. Both for those that they are looking to support and to those who are excluded. Instead, we need to focus on creating an inclusive culture where people can show up as their whole selves every day.

For true change to happen, there needs to be a level of discomfort around this and a challenge to ourselves to expand our horizons. It needs to be uncomfortable for us to be able to move through it as these periods of discomfort can be the most rewarding learning experiences.

We are going to make mistakes when talking to others and when acknowledging our own privileges and mistakes in the past. That’s why we need to have courageous conversations that listen to other people’s experiences, backgrounds and cultures, and work towards a commitment to do better. We can truly start to understand who people really are and how to achieve the best from when we talk to them, rather than forming stereotypical assumptions.

Our own diversity charter draws on this by asking all of our colleagues to be culturally competent. To take the time to learn about different cultures, races, religions and backgrounds represented in (and outside) of our Network. We have many resources to facilitate this, including our office library, our company wellbeing app TalkOut and encouraging brave, open and honest conversations. If employees make a mistake when talking to their colleagues, we ask them to apologise and ask for help.

We also ask our colleagues to treat people in the way they wish to be treated rather than the way you would wish to be treated. Most importantly, we should be respectful always to others.

So today, I invite you to challenge yourself to move out of your own comfort zone. Have a courageous conversation or learn something new about a different culture. That way you’ll be making progress towards a fearless future.

EPIC Youth: Our first official launch – Eleanor Covell, Head of EPIC Youth

EPIC Youth: Our first official launch – Eleanor Covell, Head of EPIC Youth

When Ayyab Cockburn founded EPIC Youth, she wanted to give young people from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to become young entrepreneurs and build amazing, self-sustaining, and vibrant businesses.

Often when we hear about start-ups and businesses, the term self-made is used. But when you look closer, mentors, investors, and education all help build a self-made person. Many young people have the passion, the vision, and the drive to build empires yet lack access to capital, mentors, and skills. EPIC Youth is here to change that.

Ayyab started the EPIC Youth Programme in January 2020, and just 14 months after it was created, EPIC is having its first business launch!

B-London Collections, a start-up Beauty Business run by a young 23-year-old woman of colour from London, became EPIC’s first young person to launch successfully. Currently, she is selling high-end false lashes with the hope to branch out in the near future to hair and eventually run her own complete beauty brand.


“I am so proud of our first EPIC Business launch, congratulations to B-London Collections! When I founded EPIC, my vision was to support young people create real businesses, may this be the first of many.” Ayyab Cockburn – Founder

B-London Collections’ creator had the vision for her success. EPIC supported her with grants for start-up capital and access to the Martin James Network‘s vast array of business, marketing, and finance experts. We also provided her with pastoral support, ensuring that her holistic development was completely supported throughout what can be a difficult process.

“Seeing B-London Collections progress from an idea to a real-life business has been amazing, she has shown the drive and resilience an entrepreneur needs.” Lindsey Hyde – Programme Manager

Luke Mulekezi, Special Projects Manager at the Martin James Network and Lead Business Mentor for EPIC Youth, supported B-London Collections from the initial idea to when the first set of eyelashes were sold. We asked him what it takes to build a new business.

“You need to be flexible, creative, and willing to roll with the punches. At EPIC, we support young people to do everything from registering their business with Companies House to mentoring them through difficulties and challenges like any entrepreneur would face. Our programme doesn’t just teach young people business skills, it teaches them how to cope with challenges, how to think creatively when faced with barriers, and be confident decision-makers. B-London Collections was born through a global pandemic, making it a resilient company with a bright future. I can’t wait to see what she does next!” Luke Mulekezi

Since EPIC launched, we’ve supported two social enterprise start-ups, helping them grow their reach and are working with a third small business. We’ve also given £7000 in grants to care leavers helping support them during the pandemic, and EPIC is supporting nine more young people to become entrepreneurs. In 2021, EPIC plans to support 20 more young people in starting their businesses and continuing to build our programme.

This is an EPIC Journey, come and join us.

Profiling Martin James Foundation’s Jim Cockburn on World Social Work Day

Profiling Martin James Foundation’s Jim Cockburn on World Social Work Day

Ubuntu: I am Because We are – Strengthening Social Solidarity and Global Connectedness

On World Social Work Day 2021, we recognise the work of our Chairperson Jim Cockburn, who has fearlessly championed the rights of children across the world.

Jim Cockburn has made a significant contribution to the fostering landscape that the world knows today, and in doing so helped to provide foster care for 45,000 children around the world.

Before he disrupted the rules, foster carers were often supporting children and young people with complex needs and receiving little in the way of support and training. Jim created an agency that aimed to take young people with complex needs out of institutional care and place them in families. Jim’s aim was to ensure his carers were properly supported, trained and paid a reasonable allowance for their commitment and care. Another key aim of Jim’s approach to fostering was to ensure the placements created feelings of belonging and inclusion for the children, many of whom had experienced abuse and neglect and whose life chances would have otherwise been limited.

Jim is proud to be a registered social worker, he first practised in children and families teams in Bristol, Sheffield and London, before moving to Dudley. He moved to Sandwell as a social services middle manager during the mid-1980s and worked in Smethwick, Oldbury and Cape Hill. These were areas of multiple deprivation, and Jim was involved in numerous care proceedings where children were removed from their family homes.

“The challenges many families faced meant we could have made a case to take any number of kids away, I felt burned out.” He didn’t fit into the local authority ethos, disruptors never do, so he moved to a night duty team before getting onto a course at UAE, in East Anglia, so that he could improve his knowledge and skills. He was told by a lecturer that he would never succeed with local authorities. “I was told my career would always be a disaster, that I’d always be in trouble.” He was too outspoken, too independent.

He got a job in Bromsgrove where he tried to change the direction of his career by applying to work in fostering. Ironically, for a man who went on to oversee 45,000 foster placements, he was turned down and told by raising fostering standards and support he’d make the process too elitist.

This provided Jim with the motivation to develop his own services that had quality care for children at their core. “There was a girl there, who started it all off. She was six, been multiply abused, and was severely traumatised. The local authority took her into care and she ended up in this institution with teenagers, which was just wrong she was so vulnerable. So I spoke to a foster carer who I knew and asked her to look after her, rather than allow this to happen.”

The carer agreed on the proviso that she had long term support, therapy for the young girl, respite care and a financial allowance to cover her costs. For the local authority, they realised that properly supported foster care placements were not only better for the children, keeping them in a family setting instead of an institution, they were often more cost effective than expensive residential units. By accident, Jim came across adverts for independent foster caring. At that time there were limited regulations and rules. He learned fast and decided to give it a go himself, setting up an agency. “There was no registration or inspection, which we later lobbied for. It was deregulated. There were 15 groups at the time, all in Kent with one in Sussex.

In 2006, the organisation had grown to become a world leader. “Our reputation grew as an organisation that was able to provide really high-quality care and we were able to grow our services and reach more children and families. We went to New Zealand, Finland, Australia, Norway, Ireland, Japan. As well as finding families for displaced children, we also took children out of inappropriate settings such as hotels and motels and got them resettled in homes with families. These children blossomed. To this day when I hear about the individual stories of the children’s progress where carers and colleagues have made such an impact, I am so proud of what we are all achieving.”

“Ultimately what we have done for the past thirty years is that we have recruited and supported foster carers, and we have done this well. Simply, we placed hard-to-place kids with families and provided therapy and educational support. We learned it was no good building schools, you need to get these kids back into mainstream schools. I believe really strongly, that kids are better with families, and communities not in institutions where they are often cut off from society and schooled on site.”

This journey has led Jim and his wife Ayyab Cockburn to establish the Martin James Foundation, which continues to improve standards for childcare around the world. It includes services that deliver the highest quality care and support services in; Key Assets Canada, Key Assets Australia, Key Assets Japan, Key Assets New Zealand, FosterTalk UK, and EPIC Youth. “We want to improve standards globally. People think you’re nuts when you say that. We’re about deinstitutionalisation, getting young people out of institutions. We’re practice based. We’ve got 300 social workers who know what fostering mean. The Martin James Foundation plays a key role in connecting them and allows them to share best practice amongst themselves, and also with organisations and governments who are looking to reform their care systems.”

The Martin James Foundation is currently looking after close to 1000 children and young people in foster care placements, and FosterTalk (an organisation which solely supports foster carers) supports 30,000 foster carers a year. MJF takes the knowledge, skills and experience from this direct delivery of services, to empower and influence others who share the vision that children belong in families. “We are also pleased to be working in collaboration with our partners to make a difference in countries far and wide including Jordan, Indonesia, India, Thailand and Madagascar to name but a few.”

“It is our mission to continue to change child-care, one child at a time in order to ensure that all children are brought up in families. We believe all institutional care is by definition harmful to children and life chances.”

On World Social Work Day, the Martin James Network recognises all social workers across the world who join us in strengthening social solidarity. Jim Cockburn and the Martin James Foundation will continue to empower global partners to strengthen family-based care systems, in order that every young person grows up in loving family.