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 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.

MJN launches it’s first Fearless Storytelling Competition

MJN launches it’s first Fearless Storytelling Competition


To celebrate National Storytelling week on 29th January, the Martin James Network launched its very first children’s ‘Fearless Voices’ creative writing competition. In a time when home-schooling is the new normal, we want to create a platform for children to be brave with their imaginations and creativity. Fearless Stories will amplify the voices of children, in a year when they have had little opportunity to be heard. 

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

From Friday 29th January children between 5-15 years will have the opportunity to submit a fictional story of 500 words (or less!) about being courageous. The only limits are imagination and creativity!

There will be a bronze, silver and gold winner in each age category: 5 – 7 yrs, 8 – 11 yrs, 12 – 15 yrs.


Gold: One double page spread of your story illustrated by children’s book illustrator

Silver: £50 Waterstone book tokens

Bronze: Creative writing book, notepads, pens and colours (worth £25)

Entries must be made by a parent, guardian or teacher who can submit the story by emailing
Please include the child’s name and age when submitting.

Competition closes on 26th February. 






2020 Round Up with Jim and Ayyab Cockburn

2020 Round Up with Jim and Ayyab Cockburn

If you think back to January 2020 would you have predicted that we would be on lockdown for most of the year? No, neither did we!

This year has thrown curveballs but thanks to all of our amazing colleagues who adapted, listened and helped us to navigate through this time, we have been able to continue growing and innovating. We have drawn so much inspiration from them all, as well as the communities we have served and the partners we have worked with. It has been one of the toughest years ever, but also one which taught us so much about the power of the human spirit to endure and to overcome.

We very quickly adapted to new ways of working, finding creative ways to get our services and products to our communities digitally. We innovated – reflect for a second on Antser’s ground-breaking VR solution, bringing children back into the classroom virtually. Another example is our vision for a ‘TalkOut’ platform providing access to engagement, mental health and VR services from one portal, one which we have already started to realise.  These are just two of the many new models we are pioneering and building on.

We reprioritised and refocused, for instance diverting Martin James Foundation resources to more front-line projects; helping vulnerable families in Madagascar, supporting care-leavers in Birmingham with grants and resources, also renewing our partnership with Food-cycle to deliver food to families in greatest need locally. Let us not forget the amazing Epic Youth Project, which we are proud to say has reached over 120 young people, 15 of whom we are working with more intensively to realise their business goals. There has never been a more important time to give young people hope and opportunity, which we are just so pleased to be contributing to.

We also used the time to reflect on who we are as a collective network and what we want to continue doing and investing in. We have captured this very simply in our new strapline “Fearless Futures”. In these few words we are clear about our ongoing commitment to strengthening families and communities through ‘humanising’ social care, health and education structures, practice, and technologies. Everyone deserves the opportunity to live a fearless future and we exist to disrupt existing patterns of inequity and promote better social and health outcomes – it’s as simple as that!

Fearless Futures also applies internally and as part of this we have continued to develop our culture of ongoing learning and enterprise, most notably through our CoLab initiative. Many staff and Epic Youth members have participated in workshops ranging from photography to poetry and Mindfulness. Through such initiatives we are growing ever more comfortable about challenging ourselves and others on a daily basis to open up our minds, get curious and not be afraid to push ourselves.

In 2020 we also saw new businesses join the Network. UK Fire Training, a very valuable addition to our ‘fearless health’ portfolio, will be launching new training products in 2021, utilising the very best technologies.  Our ambition to do more to support causes close to our heart also led to us welcoming AboutFace – providers of anti-racism training into the Network. Events this year have clearly shown us that writing diversity charters and attending standard training are not enough, we need to get disruptive – something Cliff is on a mission to do!  Our new partnership with ‘Roots to Life’ Saturday School, due to be launched in January, also signifies our commitment to promoting inclusion and strengthening community – watch this space for more on this. We are also incredibly excited about the launch of CaseFlowHR solution in January 2021 – watch out Spreadsheet Britain, Greg and Jill are coming for you!

We must also recognise the areas that have grown from strength to strength, continuing to deliver the highest quality of service, despite the increase levels of demand; Key Assets Europe, Antser Assessment services and Intellect to name but a few.

Whilst we have achieved a lot it has not been an easy time for many people across the group, and we have both also certainly felt the pressure at times. Holy Moly has had to remain shut for a large part of the year which has had a significant impact on staff morale. The good news is we remain fully committed to re-opening when circumstances allow us to in 2021. We have also had to make tough business decisions around other areas of the network to ensure the realisation of future goals and priorities. Saying goodbye to people is never easy but we congratulate Agility and Tribera, two very successful businesses that are now forging their own way in the world.

There is so much to be proud of this year, the perseverance, the creativity, the collaboration, the learning, the resilience and the impact achieved. We really could go on. Empowering ‘Fearless Futures’ doesn’t mean that we haven’t felt the fear, this year has been full of it. But time and time again, we have demonstrated that we will never let fear own us, or hold us back. We truly appreciate all the hard work and support every single person has contributed to the Network over the last 12 months, and we look forward to building on our successes into 2021.

– Jim Cockburn and Ayyab Cockburn


Supporting Foster Carers in times of Covid-19

Supporting Foster Carers in times of Covid-19

FosterTalk was established in 2004 to give foster parents access to a greater degree of independent support. 

The foster care journey is challenging and unique for every child, young person and carer. FosterTalk supports families on this journey with services that are welcoming, trusted, reliable, knowledgeable and innovative.

2020 has been especially difficult for foster families. Due to the restrictions placed upon them, foster carers have expressed concerns about what support is still available to them, what their legal rights are, how to keep themselves and the children safe, and much more. 

But throughout lockdown, FosterTalk has been there to support its members in a variety of ways. We hear from three foster families that have benefited from our expertise this year:

We listened to our carers’ health and financial worries

One particular foster carer contacted FosterTalk as they had concerns regarding their health and financial circumstances. They also had worries around whether foster carers were defined as ‘key workers’, and if birth family contact for children was permitted. 

The foster carer felt there wasn’t much clarity from their fostering service regarding contact arrangements. Our FosterTalk advisor researched this with the foster carer over the phone. They found that there was a policy on the fostering service website, stating that carers must promote safe birth family contact through virtual means only. The foster carer was able to share this clear guidance to the young person in their care, easing their confusion and worry. 

In regards to whether foster carers were defined as ‘key workers’, our advisor referred the carer to the guidance published on the FosterTalk website, which clearly states that foster carers are not defined as key workers. Using the FosterTalk website, the foster carer was also signposted to finance and medical helplines for advice on their respective circumstances. 

At the start of the conversation, the carer was understandably confused and anxious about covid-19 and how it would affect their fostering responsibilities. They were ‘really worried about what’s going on’ but the call appeared to help the carer express their concerns. Before the end of the call, the carer was also signposted to the 24/7 counselling helpline for all members. With assurances, clarity on key issues, and relevant signposting from FosterTalk, the carer was supported as best as possible and fully utilised their membership benefits. 

 We encouraged open and honest discussions around difficult situations

A foster carer recently contacted FosterTalk to discuss their concerns regarding a funeral that a young person in foster care had been invited to. This was an extended family member of the young person, though still of great significance to them and they understandably wanted to attend the funeral. The carer wanted to honour the young person’s wishes, but was concerned around the rules of self-isolating and staying safe in the current climate. 

FosterTalk referred the carer to the guidelines on funeral arrangements via the Age UK website, which provide clarity on what steps the young person would need to take if they were to attend the funeral. Furthermore, FosterTalk informed the carer that it may be best practice for a risk assessment to be completed by the local authority social worker, in conjunction with the fostering service and the young person. 

Promoting an open and honest discussion with the young person was FosterTalk’s message, and this appeared to help the foster carer feel more at ease. They expressed to the carer that FosterTalk could not provide a ‘yes or no’ to whether a young person in foster care could attend a funeral, as this lies with the person with parental responsibility. 

However, by providing clear guidance on funeral arrangements, reiterating the importance of a risk assessment, along with referring the carer to the medical helpline, the carer received clarity on a complex matter and their mind was put at ease.



We clarified complex protocol, finding solutions using technology

Another complex matter for foster carers during the pandemic has been the protocol around statutory visits from children’s social workers, and visits from supervising social workers. 

FosterTalk have spoken to a number of foster carers regarding this matter and have advised them to clarify the policy of their fostering services and local authorities. They have also suggested that foster carers could work with professionals to ensure visits are completed through alternative video means. 

FosterTalk reiterated to the carers that it is more important than ever that all professionals supporting children in care work in partnership to ensure visits are completed, but not at the detriment of the children’s or foster carers’ health. This support and guidance appears to have been received positively by our members.

FosterTalk have, and will, continue to provide consistent advice to all foster carers who need us over the coming months. For more information on FosterTalk please visit their website: https://www.fostertalk.org/