Angela Watt: People must matter more than the timeframes under which they labour

“Those stepping up across Scotland, who take personal risks to drive positive solutions for our communities and country, are often already stuck between a rock and a hard place before their first step. The short term cycles of financial support, of political focus and of system process, are all short term and set by those who have the power, so it is to their clock we need to work.”

SCOTLAND suffers from a ‘time’ conundrum.

Okay, it’s not just Scotland, but our country does suffer from the challenges of long and short termism. If I were to say that our addiction to ‘time’ has created a never ending short loop of hope and despair that is pushing many of the voluntary sector’s chief execs and community entrepreneurs to the edge, would you call me melodramatic? Well, our country’s acceptance of predefined time frames to suit process over people is hurting the core of our nation. Time is being used, not as a constant measure or an incentive, but as a barrier to progress.

Some of us have ‘too much time on our hands’ and others feel ‘time is not on their side’. At national meetings, I find myself talking more and more about the challenges of the long and short time frames – how the disconnect of time between grassroots communities and public sector is too wide and how the complexity and difficulties of a community project are amplified if the timeframes do not work. And yet those who have the power to control timeframes seemingly find them impossible to change.

The way time weighs upon has changed since I was young. I remember Sundays as family days – we would have lunch together, go to the seaside or visit family, and recognise Sundays as a day of rest. The working day was set at 9 to 5, and the evenings and weekend were ‘own time’ for many workers. Everything seemed – at least, compared to today – to have a steady pace. This has changed.

The gig economy, amongst other factors, has created a new relationship with time; one young friend keeps a diary that just has a list of places and times along with the words ‘eat and sleep’. This is to ensure he does not miss a shift at one of his five part time jobs, for he knows that someone else will step in his shoes immediately.

For those currently in the voluntary sector, time is often one long continuous struggle to keep up. The increased challenges citizens experience that, as with the mental health crisis, are becoming more long term and complex, through to the short term funding and the shorter reporting periods means there is no end to the work. Sometimes we feel that we never finish anything, for it just all continues and grows harder by the day.

The speeding up of time, the connecting of global time zones and what seems to be endlessly shortening and more onerous deadlines have created a working life around which many of us struggle to fit in anything else – even our own families. As one friend recently said, ‘I am constantly and painfully aware of feeling like time is bearing down on me”.

As for me, I know that meditation helps me; I have tried it over the years and benefited, but since Covid hit, I am too stressed and haven’t got the time – an obvious contradiction that only adds more pressure, for surely I should be a better personal time manager and put my own wellbeing first? So the list of things I struggle with ‘struggling with’ only grows as the timeframes intensify.

Have you ever been in a meeting when someone says some variation of: “Our timeframe for this is six months. I hear you –  yes, you need longer, but six months is just how it is”. Well I have sat in way too many of those meetings. This attitude to time and its relation to our labour can seem inescapable.

Here is just one experience: a young woman – let us call her Emma – turned up at our venue, brought in by her support worker – a worker I knew well, for we had discussed many times over the years how her energy was being crushed by the constant reductions and redefinitions of the service she worked for. I was informed by the support worker that her client had run out of time with the service; they had tried everything to help, but they were unable to offer any more sessions, as the waiting lists for support in community had grown too long. I watched the expression on Emma’s face as her support worker shared the various ways they had tried to tackle the barriers erected by the system, but nothing had worked. The allocated one hour a week for six weeks had not worked, and the service had been able to double it to twelve weeks; still, it did not work, so they had to move on.

Emma had a number of mental health challenges, very little education and could not read and write. Emma no family support around her, and was on her own and not responded quickly enough to the support. I was told by the support worker that Emma wanted to volunteer for our organisation. I could see by Emma’s reaction, that it filled her with dread… but after years of working with the health services and seeing their financial challenges grow, the increase in need outstripping supply and the complexity of red tape they face, I knew that the ‘volunteer’ proposal was because they needed Emma ‘off their books’ (an expression I learned from an NHS Senior Manager).

Emma did not speak on that first occasion, nor on the next nine visits by herself, but eventually we did speak a little, for after several false starts we found an ‘action connector’ which was drawing with coloured pencils. Then, as the months went by, as we focused on the action, Emma felt the pressure lift from her shoulders.

We encouraged Emma to sit in an art club, and Emma’s new label became that of artist. She said it was her first positive label, and she wore it with pride. Other art club members gave authentic encouragement and the mutual support grew and grew, Emma began to find her place.

The journey for Emma was a bumpy one – building trust was a huge challenge and this takes time. Emma investing her trust in others took consistency within the volunteer team to enable that development – a consistency we could only achieve by trying to self-fund our activities. For Emma and many hundreds of people who have come through our doors, they do not know their ‘wellbeing timeframe’; consequently, funders have to set time-limits on their awards, for who knows when the end of ‘need and money’ may be. Emma’s journey from first visit to volunteer was six years and three months.

Those stepping up across Scotland, who take personal risks to drive positive solutions for our communities and country, are often already stuck between a rock and a hard place before their first step. The short term cycles of financial support, of political focus and of system process, are all short term and set by those who have the power, so it is to their clock we need to work. As for the time frame for people in our communities, well, we are all different and our own timeframe is a continual journey of steps forward, steps back and sometimes, just standing quietly waiting for the system to catch up.

If Scotland truly wants to lead the world in enabling our communities to flourish, then might we please consider how our timeframes affect us. And if you are a person in power, if you have the position to change the focus from timeframes to people, then please let us work together… for time is of the essence.

Angela Watt is the founder and CEO of Resonate Together in Alloa, Board Director at Social Enterprise Scotland and ACOSVO, and co-founder of the ‘Horasis Powered by Resonate’ international project.