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Coping as a workplace team during COVID-19

Dr. Robyn Vesey talks about the steps that teams, organisations, and leaders can take to manage the psychological impact of COVID-19.
Some of the things that we’ve seen that are creative ways to adapt in things like new structures or new platforms that help groups to come together to achieve their work. And this might be the remote management meetings, but also things like end of the day quizzes. There’s new ways of delivering work that has had to be put on hold, and then there’s things like making virtual coffee wounds. So we see this creativity in this adaptation in many of the ways that people are responding. In terms of groups, certainly groups will find ways to move through the stages of grief together. And the ways in which we know that there will be productive in easier times to come.
But this is a process and it’s a group process, so it’s important to acknowledge the feelings that come with adaptation as a whole group in order to support people and the whole organisation through this change and the losses that are our experiences. When we see a rush to a productivity or a rush to activity. It can get in the way of this process because there’s an important work to do in mourning the losses of changing to the new situation. Again, sometimes we need to be very active and responsive, but there will also need to be time to work through what has happened and what that’s been like when it’s safe to do so.
So it’s an organisational level that might mean accepting that the organisation itself is changing, that the old certainties and ways of doing things no longer hold or that the direction of the organisation is having to change. And it means acknowledging the disruption and the loss of this previous shared vision of the previous direction, the previous things that were taken for granted.
One thing that we, like many others, are facing is the loss of the in the room contact and it’s quite hard to describe why that makes such a difference, because so much can be achieved when we meet face to face on a video platform. But it also does make a real difference whether you’re a GP or lecturer to be meeting somebody on a screen rather than in the room. There are two things that I think are really helpful in moving forward at this time.
The first is recognising the experiences that people are having within their group or system context, and instead of treating feelings as individual start to acknowledge that these are shared feelings and even share tensions that a whole group or organisation is facing. And this means making connections between what individuals are feeling and what the whole group is experiencing. There are practical ways this can happen, making time for one to one phone calls with colleagues to share how you reach feeling. But also things at a group level managers putting in place new ways to connect us a team, especially where there is no business agenda. One thing we know is having a weekly hour long Zoom check in.
With no agenda other than to talk about how everyone is feeling and simply acknowledging the reality of this situation. This might be formal or informal, but you can set this up by first of all sharing the idea so everyone knows what the group is about. It’s often also useful to think about who’s invited and who runs the group, and to make it a set time.
The second thing is developing the capacity across the group and the organisation for holding contradictions and dissonance. This is perhaps especially important for those in management or leadership roles. At times of high stress, knew ideas or different ideas can feel threatening. But we know that we need to have different ideas and to listen to each other and to share our feelings and our ideas in creative ways.
So just because there is anxiety, loss and even overwhelming feelings does not mean that there isn’t creativity and productivity. Just because there is competition or absence doesn’t mean that isn’t collaboration and solidarity. Just because there is a loss in control over some areas doesn’t mean there are no boundaries or spaces where decisions and actions can helpfully be taken. Just because leaders do not know what the next steps are does not mean there cannot be trustworthy and competent leadership but is responsive to the reality of the current situation. In the work we do supporting workers are needed at this time. We are helping them to keep in touch with both sides of the contradiction and the dissonance.
Sometimes this means a discussion in a group by two people might be taking very different position, seemingly opposite angles, but we support the group in recognising that they’re both right in their own context and in their own way.

Robyn helpfully breaks down how workplace teams can be supported into three key principles, with practical examples.

  1. Noticing – developing an awareness that teams are adjusting to many things, including new structures and processes, losses, and even new work and roles.

  2. Acknowledging – demonstrating the awareness that change and disruption are happening and can promote difficult emotions in individuals and teams. This links back to the concept of containment.

  3. Holding contradictions – highlighting that we can have contrasting feelings and experiences during a difficult and disrupted time, and that this is okay.

These principles need a practical application in the workplace. However, keeping these principles and the needs we discussed previously in mind throughout, practical steps can ensure their effectiveness.

Practical steps can be taken, but should be tailored to individual contexts, including:

  • Leaders acknowledging that this is a difficult time with disruption, loss, and change.
  • Giving clear guidance on how staff should be communicating at this time, e.g., the use of digital platforms.
  • Providing opportunities for individuals to share their feelings and experiences one to one, e.g. in line management.
  • Offering team and group opportunities to share and reflect.
  • Separating business and work agendas from personal needs in reflection can be helpful.
  • Collating and sharing people’s experiences to create a shared meaning of how a team understands the situation.
  • Clear communications to normalise people’s experiences and feelings, driven by leadership.
  • Role modelling of open and reflective conversations from leaders.
  • Finally, remembering the core tasks of the team or institution: what are people there to do, and why does this matter?
Have you seen any of these principles of practical steps in your experience? Could you see them being used in your settings? Please add to the discussion below!
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COVID-19: Psychological Impact, Wellbeing and Mental Health

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