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Leading in a crisis starts with acknowledging your own feelings


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    Tricia Boyle

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, leadership consultants at The King’s Fund have continued to coach and consult with leaders across health and social care. We have heard how leaders’ roles and the nature of their work has changed.

We have witnessed the impact of emotional highs and lows, listening to how the higher stakes have had an impact. By acknowledging and expressing these experiences and feelings, leaders have helped themselves to connect in a deeper way to themselves and others to regain strength, focus and clarity of thought.

We’ve gathered here the experiences that leaders say contributed to each feeling state. We hope they will encourage and support you and your colleagues to have conversations that recognise and articulate your own experiences and help you move forward.

Why might people feel overwhelmed?

We have heard many reasons why people may feel overwhelmed by the current crisis. People are often facing Covid-19 action with little relevant experience to draw on. Information has been fragmented and experiences with inadequate protection commonplace. Many staff are having to cope with many people dying. Some have been Covid-19 positive themselves, self-isolating and working virtually where possible despite being ill, until they can get back to their role. When some return the situation is calmer, so the feeling of being overwhelmed is temporary; others return to an escalating crisis and the feeling remains. Some care sector leaders face failing businesses, redundancies and financial ruin.

People feel frightened, angry, let down and abandoned. They feel grief and loss, and a sense of inadequacy when unable to save lives. The loss of or fears for colleagues and family increase intensity.

Why might people feel exhilarated?

People have been organising things for others who are on the front line and creating alternative ways of providing non-Covid-19 services. They can make things happen using command-and-control structures to get rid of obstacles, and where these have been moved aside, they can act and innovate quickly.

People report a sense of energy, feeling good about being authorised, helpful and potent. Their work is useful to others and they feel valuable. When authorised to act with a sense of control, they are active and satisfied.

Why might people feel stood down?

People in this position are no longer doing their usual leadership job and have not been given another one, and the longer this goes on the worse they can feel, watching others being over-stretched while they wait to return to a different kind of service delivery.

They feel excluded, side-lined, redundant, lost, no longer essential. Rationally they know this is temporary, but their initial emotional response is low mood and despondency. As time goes on, some have withdrawn into themselves while others feel increasing frustration and anger. A sense of guilt can grow. There are those who initially felt relieved and happy, slowing their pace, who now feel increasing anxiety about growing unmet needs and when and how they can start leading a return to some sort of service delivery.

Why might people feel exhausted?

People in the overwhelmed or exhilarated categories for too long, inevitably reach this state. Feelings can be more acute for those who have had to deal with the deaths of colleagues and/or people close to them, or have been near death themselves.

For some, this feeling comes and goes and just having a couple of good nights’ sleep is enough. However, others feel they need significant time off and support to recover, and the emotional pain and scale of recovery needed can be amplified by traumatic personal experiences. People have reported feeling new levels of numbness, fragility and a reduced sense of resilience.

Why do people experience shifting states?

Increasingly, people have reported moving between feeling states, experiencing more than one in a day or over the weeks.

As their circumstances have changed, so have people’s feelings. Some become exhilarated, having been stood down for a period, then given meaningful work. Others who initially felt exhilarated and potent, have found that the command-and-control structure has moved in on early innovations and removed their authority to make changes, standing them down. Others who were overwhelmed have become exhausted, welcoming a period of being stood down.

Acknowledging present feelings transforms their power

If any of these descriptions have resonated with your experience, you will realise that there's no universal way to have experienced this crisis. As people return to previous roles and work expands in complexity, your understanding of your emotional experiences and those of others can be used as a form of intelligence to help you work together better. A conversation about personal experiences and feelings may seem countercultural and perhaps even self-indulgent when so many people have lost so much and there is so much to do. However, where emotions are suppressed and unacknowledged, compassion and understanding cannot flourish. Better then to acknowledge and use the emotional fire of the crisis together, to forge and shape stronger local health and care systems.

Here we suggest questions you can use in conversation with colleagues to help reflect on your experiences and their impact.

Leading through Covid-19

Short resources and shared experiences to offer some help in supporting leaders working in the NHS, social care, public health, local authorities and the voluntary and independent sector.

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