Leading through and beyond Covid-19: what challenges are leaders facing?

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The health and care system in the UK is facing a challenge the like of which has not been seen in living memory. It is a crisis that has rewritten the rules: who cannot be amazed, whether it’s by the sight of our empty cities or the NHS and the army turning the ExCeL centre into a giant critical care unit. The pace has been dramatic and unrelenting.

The pressure on frontline staff is clear to everyone. But the pressure on leaders – whether at the frontline or working away from the spotlight – is also acute. That is why, working with others, we have launched our new online resource, Leading through Covid-19. We aim to provide support to this leadership community, whether you are working in the NHS, social care, public health or the voluntary and independent sector. The material will be short, accessible, practical and relevant to the challenges you are facing. The content published last week covered teaming, coaching and holding virtual meetings, and was launched after discussion with NHS England and NHS Improvement, Health Education England and others. But this is only a beginning: we are reaching out to other partners and organisations whether in the UK or beyond and will expand the content over the weeks (and months) ahead.

'But this is only a beginning: we are reaching out to other partners and organisations... and will expand the content over the weeks (and months) ahead.'

A critical part of this initiative is feedback. We want to get this right: providing the support you need, in the format that works best. So though we’ve made a start now, this is where you can tell us what would be helpful, whether in terms of the content or how it is presented.

Even in our early discussions with people working out in the service there are some indications of the sort of material that might be useful. Some will be very operational, such as how to make online meetings and management work. When people are anxious and everything can feel urgent, you want to be sure you are getting the best from your teams and that you know how to work as well as possible virtually.  

Leading through Covid-19

For our quick-read practical guides and videos on leading through Covid-19 and to tell us how we can help

Visit the project page

But more fundamentally, leaders are having to deal with multiple challenges and anxieties. At their heart, these of course focus on how they are serving patients and the public. Most obvious are the patients suffering with Covid-19. But there are many others who do not have Covid-19 but do have other conditions, and are having to face physical (which for many will also mean social) distancing and or will find their health and care services interrupted by the emergency response. Increasingly, there will be others facing economic hardship as the economy moves sharply into recession, despite all the efforts of the government to mitigate this impact. As a result, the risks to many of our most vulnerable citizens are rising as they face a combination of isolation, loneliness and rising economic adversity. At the same time, many voluntary sector organisations that have provided services and support to exactly these groups are themselves facing challenges as many traditional fund-raising routes dry up.

'Providing as good a service as possible to patients and the public of course translates directly into looking after staff.'

Providing as good a service as possible to patients and the public of course translates directly into looking after staff. Even before the Covid-19 outbreak began, workforce was the key issue facing the health and care system in the UK. This has become an even greater challenge facing leaders at all levels across the health and care sector. Providing leadership and support to staff facing intense work pressures, holding the uncertainties that exist now and will persist for some time, and potentially doing so for months is a daunting ask. And to state the obvious: looking after staff also means looking after yourself – being aware of your own health and wellbeing and finding ways to manage the stress while still looking to lead and help others.  

The challenge will change over time: at the moment some are still in the calm before the storm, others are currently in the storm (though it will sadly get worse) and eventually we will begin the process of returning to normality – even if that may well turn out to be a new normal and not the world we left in February 2020. It will be felt differently across the health and care sector, from the emergency services to elective care, from physical health to mental health and from public health, through primary care and all the way to social care. For many this challenge has been added to those from the past: staff shortages are scarcely new and the Covid-19 outbreak and the response to it is likely to impact on them in ways it is currently hard to foresee.

But we can draw on an existing (and soon to be growing) evidence base of learning from previous experiences of mass trauma. It already points to the importance of promoting a sense of safety, calming anxiety, supporting a sense of self and community efficacy and encouraging connectedness and hope. We’ll try to touch on all of these themes as we expand the content on this site.

I hope that this evolving resource will provide some help and some hope as you and your teams rise to the challenge created by this unprecedented public health emergency.

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