By Sasha Mills
gnes Mwakatuma is the founder of UK-based charity Black Minds Matter, an organisation that connects people with professional therapists on a pro bono basis. Founded in June 2020, the charity has been able to create thousands of matches so far.
We spoke to Agnes about the methods she uses to maintain her mental health, helping her employees avoid tech burnout, and the importance of sounding boards even for early-stage companies.
“For months, I just tried to convince myself that burnout wasn’t real. Which is crazy for someone that works within a mental health service.”
I wake up at 5am and start my day with reality TV.
I’m an early bird by force. Ideally, I would be the kind of person that would start my day at 8pm. I feel more awake then. But I think our organisation would crumble if I did that. So, I'm usually up at five.
I’m very weird in the sense that I wake up, brush my teeth, and take a shower. And then I just stay in bed and catch up on all of the trash TV that I'm addicted to. I get that over and done with at the start of day, which is really not the best way to do it. But I feel more relaxed after doing that, versus starting my day on a very serious note.
Then I start work emails around 8am. We have different departments – the clients department, the therapist department, we've got the finance department, the operations department, the partnerships department and the safeguarding and clinical governance departments. So I do a quick check on all of those and go through my emails.
**I’m trying to avoid spending all of my time on email. **
One thing I'm starting to do now is realise that sitting on emails all day is not productive, and actually it eats up your day a lot. So I set timers – I do two hours maximum of emails in the morning. And then after doing that, around 10am that's when I have brunch, which is my favourite thing ever. I always put a lot of effort into that, mostly just because the day just goes by so quickly. And by the time you've had dinner, you realise that you just haven't nourished your body at all all day.
I do those two hours of emails in the morning, and then two hours in the evening just before I break off of work. I used to do that thing where I would get stuck on a thread all day, so I try to summarise what I need to say in one email thread and then do the final response in the evening.
I work from my phone all day, I don't really have a laptop. And I do that just simply because if I'm working, that means I'm not on social media, and I'm not getting distracted by messages or anything like that.
I check in with one of the Black Minds Matter therapists every afternoon.
I am currently doing this thing where I check in with one of the therapists every day to just go over how I'm feeling. And I think it's important that people do this, always have somebody or a bunch of people that you can check in with, whether that's daily or every other day just to rant or gain a bit of advice and direction.
“I’m very weird in the sense that I wake up, brush my teeth, have a shower. And then I just stay in bed and catch up on all of the trash TV that I'm addicted to.”
I’m a strong believer in sounding boards.
That's kind of why we started BMM, because I felt like Black people were going online, and having conversations that could put them at risk of burnout, anger, sadness or anxiety. And so I felt like they needed to speak to therapists.
So I have different kinds of sounding boards for different areas of my life. For my personal sounding board, I tend to have friends, therapists, and family. But when it comes to BMM, we have a team of trustees who have different experiences for different areas. It's so important that when you do create your network of sounding boards, that they're not all the same.
We have people who are highly experienced in finance, or marketing, or fundraising, or running a charity, or just mental health support in general. But we also have advisory boards for different areas, such as leadership, community networks, and decision making. So the most important thing I've always said to people is, do not be afraid to create a network of different advisory boards. And if you do have a business, as crazy as this sounds, even just reaching out to someone and saying, ‘Hey, you know, I was thinking about this, would you consider joining my advisory board?’
Even if you are a small business, it's worth thinking about tapping into the networks that you have currently and seeing how you could build an effective advisory board that can carry you through when you do need advice.
**I’ve introduced policies to help our employees avoid tech burnout. **
There’s pros and cons to working from home. The pros are the fact that you have your home comforts, and you don’t get that travel burnout, or constant face-to-face interaction burnout.
However, one of the things I’m becoming aware of is how burnt out I’m feeling because of the amount of Zoom calls I’m having. So I’m prioritising the meetings that should be turned into Zoom calls. It’s so easy to end up on calls where you think, this could have easily been a five minute chat on email.
One of the things I’ve noticed from the rest of the team is how burnt out they’re feeling from just being in one place and seeing the same things every day. You have a shower, and then you’re at the same desk, you’re in the same house, you don’t really get that little break to gain some fresh air or see new faces, new buildings, new things.
So one thing that we do actually have that works is that we've started to implement a lunch time break where everyone is required to leave the house and go for a walk, whether that’s down the road to a park, pop into a shop, whatever. It’s become compulsory to actually do that, and I’ve found that it’s helped massively, because you can end up easily spending 12 hours in the same spot. And that cannot be good for your mental health in the long run.
I used to struggle to admit to myself that I was feeling burnt out.
For months, I just tried to convince myself that burnout wasn’t real. Which is crazy for someone that works within a mental health service. I was consistently working crazy, crazy hours with no breaks. At one point I worked for 8 months straight and I hadn’t had a single day off. And I started to feel physically just detached from everything.
Burnout looks very different for many people, some people experience physical symptoms of burnout, some people experience mental symptoms of burnout, some people just completely detach from their mission and what they set themselves out to do. And some people end up having very serious cases where they have major breakdowns that could lead to things like psychosis, for example.
When I start to get burnout symptoms, I immediately reduce my workload.
One thing I do is that, when I initially start to notice that I’m experiencing burnout, I start to look back at my calendar and my to-do list and start cancelling things immediately. Because nothing on there is more important than rest. And nothing on your calendar is ever more important than your mental wellbeing.
Make sure you're communicating this with your team. Make sure that they are aware that you do need rest, and you do need a break. And you'd be surprised by how many people are so understanding. I've sometimes looked at my calendar and thought, ‘Oh my god, I cannot cancel that.’ But then I’ve just gone back and been very honest.
To completely recharge, I get into nature.
I always try to get out into nature. I'm very grateful that I have a Mum who lives in a place that is surrounded by nature, because being in London it's not that easy to get away. And then I also make sure I catch up on sleep, because sometimes people might feel like they need a holiday, but they just need a really good night's sleep.
We set out to solve this problem because nobody else would.
There was a clear problem that existed in the UK and, and the world. Like a lot of business leaders – we had two options. It was either you sit down, and you continue complaining about this problem, or you work out a way to find a solution.
Initially, our first conversation was actually like, you know, some celebrity should actually just raise money for Black people to go to therapy instead of sharing black squares on Instagram. That's what we said. And we were like, actually, why should we wait for somebody else to do it? Why shouldn't we do it? So we almost fell into it.
But also, that was that expectation that if we wanted it to, to work, and if we wanted it to actually solve the problems that we were having, that we would have to be the ones to step in.
AGNES’ CULTURE ROUND-UP
I’ve just finished watching something called Sky Rojo. It’s on Netflix, you need to watch it. It’s basically these ladies who were working in this parlour in Majorca, and they try to escape their pimp.
I really loved the Stack World member’s dinner at the Ivy Club. As a business owner, it was actually quite nice to know that there’s an option for hosting friends or other employees and partners there.
Me and my friends often go to Dalston Superstore, which is always just so much fun.
I absolutely love Shingai. She used to be in the Noisettes. She’s got a new album out called Too Bold. She’s also playing at Quaglinos on the 18th, and I’m so excited because she’s produced this whole album in Africa. And it’s just so beautiful.
Agnes Mwakatuma takes us through her morning routine and shares how she prioritises her mental health around a busy schedule.
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