As we seek to rebuild and revive our vibrant City of London community spirit, this autumn The Royal Exchange has partnered with the charity Mind in the City to explore mental health and the important role relationships, conversation, connection and community play in wellbeing. Here, we talk to film producer and City of London council member Munsur Ali about how he maintains a good work-life balance and a positive state of mind.
What activities, habits or rituals have you found to be the most conducive to maintaining good mental health through challenging times?
Life is full of constant challenges, some more serious than others, so it’s really about continuing with, or expanding on the level of, those activities that are good for mental health. And, of course, learning new techniques where possible. For me it’s a combination of things, such as being physically active where you can – exercising at home or outdoors – and engaging in mental exercises to connect with your inner self. It’s helpful if you can learn how to block out the pressures of life, even if it’s just for a moment, and I do this through meditation and prayer.
How important is a sense of community to you and what/where is yours?
Community is a sense of belonging and, of course, that’s super important. However, when you wear multiple hats and work in different industries you feel like you belong to multiple communities. My home is in the City – where I have lived for virtually my whole life – and there is a strong residential and business community, with a long history of being neighbourly and coming together during challenging times. At the same time, I am a Londoner, so I feel like I belong to a very large community and seeing empty streets during lockdown in the City was quite eery and unfamiliar to me.
Who is your go-to person when you need to talk about a problem or challenge you are facing?
This really depends on the problem itself. The main person I turn to is my wife, then for things that require a different set of ears – such as challenges at work – I would speak to my friends and colleagues.
Spending time with family is the most important thing to me
Would you agree that a problem shared is a problem halved?
Absolutely. Most of the time the worry is greater than the problem and speaking to someone, or just listing and writing the problem down, is very helpful.
Could you share an example of when this approach has helped you to overcome something that was troubling you?
I was leading on a campaign to change an ancient law in the City to reflect the values of London today, and I was worried about the process of doing this. Fortunately, my colleagues in the City were very helpful. Not only in listening to the problems I was having, but also working with me on a plan to reach a solution. It helped immensely.
When you feel low, what activity helps you to feel better mentally?
Initially I start with breathing exercises. I’m a very active person, so I would either go for a walk or clean my home listening to music. I find both help. I also call friends for a chat and enjoy a bit of banter over the phone.
Are there any particular things you’ve identified that can trigger a low mood, or anxiety, for you? And have you discovered any ways to combat them, that help you to feel more positive again?
I find that if my sleep pattern is affected then the following day a low mood, or even anxiety, can take over. This often happens when I am working late at night, looking at a screen, and then can’t sleep even though I have to wake up early. I am trying to manage this by reducing my screen time after 8pm and working towards a sleep pattern. It’s not easy as I think about work and creative projects even when I am supposed to be relaxing.
Are there any resources that you use, and would recommend, to help maintain a positive state of mind?
During lockdown I used a meditation app focusing on mindfulness, which was helpful. I was also looking at useful resources to help my community and I am very pleased that we (the City of London Corporation) launched a City Wellbeing Centre, which offers virtual counselling and psychotherapy sessions to residents and workers in the City and its neighbouring boroughs.
Most of the time the worry is greater than the problem and speaking to someone is very helpful
Is there anything from your lockdown lifestyle that you have brought forward into the post-lockdown present?
I enjoy face-to-face meetings, but I will be using the benefit of video conferences – which I have become quite comfortable with – where it would help to avoid travelling, and for particular meetings that can be done over a video or phone call. I don’t think I am alone in this idea.
Have you learnt any new skills, or taken up any new hobbies, that you’ll continue to embrace going forwards?
Yes, I enjoyed the mindfulness and yoga activities, and the benefits of taking a few minutes out during the day. I’m looking forward to continuing this. It’s very similar to when people pray throughout the day. It helps to reconnect you with yourself.
Has this time changed your thoughts and feelings towards a work-life balance and is there anything you’ll do differently now?
I’ve always been a firm believer in working hard, but spending time with the family is the most important thing to me. I’m still focused on my work, but I guess what I’m saying is that I’ll be looking at every opportunity where I can spend more time with my family.
What thought always puts you in a good mood?
This one is easy. My children. I have a four and a half year old and a two year old, both boys. I love spending time with them. They are going through their dinosaur phase at the moment.
Munsur Ali is a film producer, the founder of the London Bengali Film Festival and a City of London Corporation council member. He lives in Aldgate with his wife and two sons, and splits his worklife between home, Guildhall and Limehouse; munsur.co.uk
The Royal Exchange’s local Mind network – Mind in the City, Hackney and Waltham Forest – offers a range of innovative and collaborative services to support people’s mental and physical wellbeing, resilience and recovery. Click here for further information about how to access this local service, make a donation or find out how you could help with campaigning, volunteering and fundraising
Mind in the City, Hackney and Waltham Forest is part of the national Mind network, which provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. If you, or anyone you know, is experiencing difficulties, visit mind.org.uk to access information about a broad range of topics and services, designed to help you overcome the challenges of this difficult time
Visit The Royal Exchange this autumn to celebrate the vitality of community and rediscover the joy of sensory experiences within our welcoming boutiques and eateries. Read more about our Reconnect campaign here and let us know how you are reconnecting with the world on Instagram @theroyalexchange and Twitter @rexshopper