1 April 2020
By Jim McManus
Alongside the epidemic of SARS-COV-2, to give COVID19 its proper name, we can expect an epidemic of mental health issues. Stress of work, coping with anxiety, fear, loneliness, the loss of loved ones and what has hitherto been normality, and coping with very different and uncertain worlds at home and at work will bring many stresses for us. An epidemic of panic and fear, a media frenzy and what seems like a deluge of guidance (of varying degrees of value) accompanies the inevitable outbreaks of offers of “buy our stuff” from companies. How do we avoid going under?
I am very resilient, I have been through some major challenges in my time, and I know my limits. But I do have them. And so do my team. I found myself reflecting two weeks ago, after working 32 days without a break, how grateful I am that I now have a team rota, and people working with me, as well as extra capacity drafted in.
An epidemic of panic and fear, a media frenzy and what seems like a deluge of guidance accompanies the inevitable outbreaks of offers of “buy our stuff” from companies. How do we avoid going under?
Numerous well intentioned “thought leaders” have sent me and a lot of colleagues things about leadership and how to lead during these times. Some is useful. A lot isn’t. I don’t want to be getting an email asking “will you be a good or bad leader during this time?” I feel like replying “thanks, when I’ve finished leading through this almighty mess, I’ll be sure to find the time then to read it and get back to you about how rubbish a job I’ve done.”
But there are some crucial leadership skills for these times. Among them is the underrated balancing act of being able to hold your nerve and your humanity while at the same time recognising your loss and uncertainty. A second is discerning with others the way forward, communicating it, and knowing how to act as a piece in a jigsaw where everyone has a role to play. We’re not in uncharted waters but it doesn’t mean your average leadership thinker has the blueprint either.
I am drawing daily on lessons I learned the hard way, in my twenties, when people I loved started dying in numbers. In the 1980s and 1990s I cared for and lost many friends from HIV, before the current treatments we have now. I lived under its shadow, and lost many people. I remember the news hysteria. I attended many funerals, endured a great deal of discrimination and went through pressure and stress which looking back is hard to fathom how I survived. But I did. Those lessons I learned the hard way are helping me today. I want to share them with you.
I am drawing on lessons I learned the hard way, in my twenties, when I cared for and lost many friends from HIV... I endured a great deal of discrimination and went through pressure which looking back is hard to fathom how I survived. But I did.
Develop a strong instinct separating the helpful from the hype and the hokum
- Know when to turn the news off. I limit myself to an hour a day. More doesn’t help make sense of this, and the news media are of variable quality. One poorly informed journalist monstering a not very well informed “expert” a day is enough for anyone.
- Filter the news print media. I’ve stopped reading newspapers altogether and only go for the scientific press.
- Develop a sense for misinformation and hype. There’s a lot of it about. Look for trusted and credible sources.
- Develop a sense for managing urban myths like stuff circulating on heating surgical masks to 27 degrees to kill the virus.
- Read the science. Apply it but keep it under review, at least some of it will change.
- Switch off your social media half an hour before bed. Nothing is so important that you can’t sleep.
Develop the skills to keep yourself safe and functioning
- Self-care, and make sure others do it. You can’t care for others if you can’t care for yourself. Yes, you may be able to go beyond many in effort and resilience but even you have limits.
- Keep a safe space for down time like music or books or exercise.
- Find ways of showing you care and showing solidarity
- Allow yourself to grieve the changes and recognise them rather than bottle them up. As Bessel Van der Kolk’s book says, the body keeps the score and will go under.
- Learn how to rest and self-care the hard way - your first wobbler is a learning experience.
- Get physical exercise, eat well, try to sleep well.
Care for your team and others
- Systematically ask people if they are self-caring. Explain to others how you do it.
Do not let this consume you
- Find ways of keeping joy in the ordinary things like appreciating the beauty of spring as it is starting.
- Find reasons to hope - and with Covid there are many more than we had for the first ten years in the HIV crisis. This will time limit, for example: we will find a vaccine; we will slow its spread; there are some amazing examples of people showing their best.
Disrupt fear and anxiety and build pro-social behaviour
- Use social norms and community to disrupt anxiety and fear:
- Give people positive things they can do to build prosocial behaviour and mutual care.
- Take time to acknowledge others and talk about something other than COVID.
- Find something in each day to be grateful for.
- Phrase behaviours positively. Not “lockdown” but “doing my bit to stop the virus as an act of charity for the most vulnerable”
Embrace prevention as something positive you can do
- Assume you’ve got the virus and are protecting everyone else. It’s amazing how that changes your mindset and makes preventive behaviours much more instinctive
Remember the “why”
- Remember this is service – you are doing this self-giving explicitly because you serve others. You need recharging and replenishing to keep doing that. If you have faith, use it. I couldn’t do what I do without my faith.
Be ready for the signs of recovery
- Have an eye to the fragile shoot of recovery. You’ll need to spot that and get people to work with you to get there, too.
In the midst of this storm and fire will often come the still, small voice of the best of humanity. The hotelier offering their beds. The restaurant offering their kitchens. The person offering their skills. The colleague checking you’re ok. Allow these to be comfort, because they are the types of things we will need to rebuild when this is all over.
Ultimately, humanity will win over this virus. The better able you are to stay the course until it does, the better we will be when this is over.