Though the coming months will continue to be deeply uncertain and challenging for most of us, we’re being steadily nudged back to a life that looks more open and, on the surface, more in tune with pre-COVID rhythms. Schools are planning to return next month; we are being encouraged to ‘eat out to help out’; some offices are reopening, albeit under strange and complex routines. Some of us are cautiously going on vacations, staycations and their new socially distanced cousins, safecations (!).
As we approach a more open tempo of living with newly-established habits and coping mechanisms – and under the summer sunshine to boot – we might expect to be feeling ‘better’.
So why do things right now feel so difficult for so many people?
We still have some grieving to do.
Early in lockdown, frontline NHS staff received guidance from the British Psychological Society, which identified four broad stages for care workers managing the crisis:
Heroics and surge to solution
Disillusionment and exhaustion
Recovery and long-term impact
Reflecting on these, they bear a similarity to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ grief curve, which describes how people approach, engage with and process the grief that follows the death of a loved one.
We are all, without exception, grieving – for loved ones, human contact, relationships, health, freedom, travel, businesses, employment, certainty, identity, worldviews. Who among us has not lost something significant under COVID-19?
All of this is compounded by a turbulent geopolitical landscape, a relentless stoking of national and international divisions, a long-overdue global dialogue around systemic racism, and the stripping away of certainty in many areas of modern life. We are grieving familiarity and stability, if nothing else.
Here’s a version of the patterns outlined by the BPS which you might recognise:
1. In early March, as COVID became a reality, we were asked to scramble to adjust. Offices and schools suddenly closed, travel was cancelled, and we found ourselves responding and reacting as things changed over the course of a weekend. Priorities were hastily rearranged and public safety policies drawn up at record speed. In those moments, we looked to others for guidance and reassurance, and our adrenaline and cortisol rose quickly as we moved into a heightened sense of anticipatory anxiety.
2. From there, many of us moved to busy-ness and heroic action. We set up home schools and offices, installed MS Teams, transitioned to virtual meetings, called clients, wrote blogs and transition plans. We learned to ask ‘how are you’ differently, and to listen to the answer more closely. Many leaders focused with fresh eyes on the interpersonal dynamics in their teams, and developed stronger human connections with their people. Coping mechanisms kicked in, and often served us well; there were even conversations about the good that may yet come from the pandemic, including environmental, economic and socio-political reform. These were hard times, and yet many people were surprised at how well they managed, and how strong they felt.
3. Heroic action as a coping mechanism, though, is just that – a way of coping in the short term, rather than a permanently sustainable way of being. Stress in the mind and body is cumulative – high levels of cortisol and adrenaline have long-term debilitating effects on our cognitive and physical wellbeing. Essentially, we borrow physical and mental energy from our reserves to cope with the increased demands of the present – a coping mechanism psychologists sometimes call ‘surge capacity’. Now, as COVID becomes an indefinite reality, people find that those energy reserves are running empty. Seams are finally busting and for some, heroic muscles are tiring. Disillusionment and exhaustion are setting in for many.
4. Eventually, by wrestling with the angels of truth, we may find that we can move into the fourth stage - recovery. Long-held attitudes, beliefs, and world views are being torn up, leaving space for new ones to take root. Through reflection, dialogue and space, we can re-engage with how we view our employers, our societies, our planet, our teammates and, critically, ourselves. There’s more uncertainty ahead, and with it also opportunity for growth and new meaning. Many of us will come out of this crisis having accepted the call to take on new perspectives, priorities and insights, and advanced our understanding – of ourselves and the world around us.
Where are you right now on this curve?
Where are the people in your teams?
Crucially, what do you do about that as a leader?
Recognise where people are to help them move forwards
We’ve lost so much space.
Physical space – we are confined to quarters, unable to travel, shut out from meeting places like coffee shops, canteens, offices and bars.
We’ve also lost space in our day and space in our lives – spaces where we used to reflect and process. Commutes, the walk from one meeting room to another, a gossip or grumble with peers in the corridor, the soft five minutes at the start of meetings – squeezed out.
Drawing from our own recent experiences at h³ – and reaffirmed by the BPS guidance – here are five things that might be useful to leaders at this stage in the curve. They will help you create space for teams to process, recharge and gather their strength at a time when it is most needed:
Create opportunities for human reflection. We must build back space for reflection, revitalisation and connection. Many teams have experimented successfully with virtual coffee sessions and agenda-less weekly meetings; you might also consider more intentional sessions to help people surface and discuss their experiences and feelings. These present great opportunities to learn about and from one another.
What does this next stage mean to you? On a recent group coaching session with 14 senior managers, we explored what an imminent return to the physical office really means to different people. We heard 14 very different responses, ranging from excitement through irritation to fear. A return to the office may be just the tonic for one person who has been ‘bubbled’ on their own for four months; for another with vulnerable children, it could mean more anxiety. Ask your team members ‘What does what is coming next mean to you?’ and allow yourself to listen deeply to the answers.
Build your own strength for service. The pressure on leaders to be heroes – to exhibit indefatigable certainty, energy and strength in front of their teams – is clear. Strength, resilience and clearing a path can be useful in helping people move through the curve. Leaders are human too, and their energy and resilience are also under pressure. As they strive to meet the needs of their teams, they can easily neglect their own needs. As the NHS guidance says, ‘do not forget to support those supporting others’ – that may well be you (especially as you confront the need for recovery that stage 3 clearly implies).
Normalise your team’s range of responses to the pandemic. Leaders who show humanity and vulnerability have been shown to increase others’ credibility and trust in their leadership. Now is the time to show people that it’s okay (even expected) to express feelings of insecurity and fear. For your team mates to tell you honestly how they feel, you need to signal to them that honesty is what you want, and that it’s safe for them to give it.
Make your support clear and accessible. It can come from mentors, peers, managers, teams – sometimes all that’s needed is a sense of belonging and connection, which can come from the right conversation. Peers, in particular, are valuable connections right now, as they offer the space to talk about work together (as distinct from doing work together). These conversations won’t happen spontaneously, the way they used to, so we need to make an effort to encourage, instigate and accommodate them. And (this isn’t a sales pitch!) coaches, counsellors, and facilitators can be of use to people and teams in transition.
What are your needs; and how are you meeting them? What needs aren’t you meeting?
How are you rebuilding your strength?
Where do you go for support, revitalisation, human connection, and reflection ?
How will you create the space your teams need to reflect, connect and recuperate so they can find meaning and grow?
As we move into autumn, the undercurrents of unpredictability are stronger than ever, even if the surface waters look deceptively calmer. Leaders and teams will consciously need to take courage, reflect, recuperate and support one another in the weeks ahead. Our coping mechanisms have served us well over the spring and summer, and now it may be time to create the spaces we need to move to something longer-term in anticipation of an uncertain future.