19th October 2020

‘If we can winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.’

By Dr Caroline Horner

It is a hopeful but unlikely thought that coronavirus will soon be over. Experts predict it will be part of our lives for years, not months and that the impact on society, the economy and our long-term health will be felt far beyond that.

In addition to the physical impact of the virus, the pandemic is having a widespread impact on our mental health. Our capacity to cope is being stretched to the limit. In fact, the UN has urged governments to make mental health a part of their overall response to the pandemic.

These facts prompted me to think about leaders and their resilience, particularly as we face further lockdown measures, this time through winter.

I think we need to start by looking at resilience in a different way and I think we have to do it now. I’m reminded of a line in a poem by Seamus Heaney, ‘If we can winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.’

We should use this time before winter really kicks in to develop and embed new habits which support us and build our resilience so we’re in a stronger position when things look brighter.

As someone who grew up in the sunshine of South Africa, I really do believe that the seasons impact our sense of personal resilience. Reduced exposure to sunlight, not going outside as much and the pressures of the festive season were a lot to bear in the ‘good times’ let alone during a pandemic.

In winter, it becomes even more important to consider resilience and what we can do to keep ourselves and our teams healthy. The clocks are soon to go back, so it seems like the ideal time to address this. Pun unintended.

Pre-pandemic (which feels like a very long time ago), if you’d asked any leader whether their plate was full, they would say yes. But they handled it relatively cheerfully because a long slog would be rewarded with relaxation and relief in the form of a holiday or a weekend away.

All of us had things to look forward to every week: post-work drinks with colleagues, a meal out with old school friends, a night of dancing. We would go away, decompress, and be ready to start again at work refreshed on our return.

But then coronavirus happened and the burdens on leaders increased. The problems they faced, continue to face, come with no manual. Leaders are dealing with the mental and physical health issues of those they lead. They’re also having to deal with the impact on the organisations they lead in a business sense, too.

Because of the blurring of lines between home and work, that pattern of hard work followed by relaxation is a thing of the past. Spending a day doing nothing at home used to be a luxury. Now it feels like just the opposite.

We can’t get excited about travel, dining out or being with friends. Even if we are lucky enough to travel, it comes fraught with anxieties: will we get stuck somewhere? Will the rules change while we are away? What is healthcare like in other countries? How are other countries set up to keep people safe?

Whether you stay where you are or travel further afield, you cannot escape wearing a mask, a constant reminder of risk, so is it truly a break?

So where do we replenish our energy? How do we recharge in this new world? How do we look after ourselves and those we lead?

I suggest that we do our best to stop viewing coronavirus as a temporary thing and instead build the new habits that give us what we need. We need to do this, not only to stay energised and manage all that we are juggling, but to stay sane.

So, step one. Spend some time thinking about what it is you need. Ask yourself: what do I need at this time? What do I need to fill my bucket and stay resilient?

If you don't know what you need and struggle to articulate it, then it is harder for others to help.

Next spend some time thinking about how to ask for what you need. I know that this can be tricky for leaders. They are primed to take responsibility and are often better skilled at paying attention to what other people need than what they need.

A simple example is in general ‘ways of working’. I recognise in myself that if I don’t know what is going on with a piece of work, I hold it in my head to remind myself to follow-up and check-in with the person I have delegated it to. I work on a lot of things with a lot of people. This makes my head feel very full at times.

What helps me is a person understanding this about me. Then they can regularly and consistently keep me in the loop. This allows me to free up headspace.

I’ve learned that my need for communication is different to others. I need to explain this to people. I can’t expect them to intuit what will help me manage my stress.

Another example comes from speaking to a group of leaders this week. We were struck by the heightened anxiety they are currently holding in regards to their children, particularly their adult children.

They are investing energy in pre-empting what their children need, what they may be struggling with and what they can do to ease their pain, disappointment or frustration.

Few had actually asked their children what they needed, what their current experience was and where support from their parent could be best targeted.

For all we know some may be energised and thriving in the face of challenge but others may need practical help or some emotional TLC – something that when we try to pre-empt others’ needs would not cross our minds. We can never truly understand another person’s experience but we can engage in activities that get us closer to it.

My invitation here is to manage your stress by giving up on being a mind reader.

Invest the time to listen, truly listen to understand the other’s experience of the world we live them and to invite them to tell you what they need and where you can to support them with that. This is a truly empowering approach whether you are a leader, a parent, a partner, a sibling, a friend.

It’s not just about listening to others needs so you can support them. It is about knowing your needs and finding a way to express what you need from people too. To give others the choice, and the chance, to respond.

Top tips for building resilience in winter:

  • I’ll be honest. G&T Zoom calls were novel in the first few weeks of the first lockdown but it’s not quite as exciting this time round. Get your team together and brainstorm how to keep energy up as a team. A leader I spoke to last week came up with a fantastic idea. She agreed with her team to adjust their standard working day. Throughout the winter they have agreed to no meetings between 12 and 2 so that they all have the opportunity to exercise and get some outdoor time in daylight. While everyone is apart, it is a great team activity to support resilience
  • Reinstate ‘the commute’. Think about what you can do to transition from work to home. Previously it may have been a cycle, car ride or train journey, what will it be now? 30 minutes for yourself to walk around the block, sit in your favourite chair or in a bustling coffee shop. Space to listen to music, a podcast or to chat to a friend? Ask for what you need and help others understand the benefit of a buffer for you and others. You are likely to re-enter more resourced, fully present and a lot more fun!
  • Stop relying on the anticipation of the next holiday, weekend or exciting event to keep you going and then to refresh you - this approach is no longer viable. Challenge yourself to adjust your ‘reset’ ‘refresh’ approach. What is a ‘treat’ for you in this strange new world? What restores you? Perhaps consider a shift to little and often ‘escapes’ – e.g. hobbies that provide some mental down time, the opportunity to be creative and feel nurtured.
  • Reflect to help you figure out what you need to bolster your resilience. Pay attention to what energises and irritates you. Think about the kinds of things that refresh you, and create space for or ask for those thing.
  • Give others a boost. Pay attention to what gives others energy - some may relish the opportunity to ‘chew the fat’ whereas others might just need your permission to ‘disappear’ for a bit – go ‘dark’ by turning their screen off or to have a zoom free day reverting to the telephone for calls. Try to elicit what people in your team need and share this information so you can all help each other manage your individual and collective resilience. Insight tools exploring preferences can help to prompt these conversations. If you want to learn more about tools you can use to prompt insight for yourself or your team please get in touch.
  • Finally, we all need a space to reflect, discuss, process and vent at times particularly now while things are so uncertain. Conversations with other leaders who are facing similar challenges and frustrations can be useful. They allow us to know we are not alone, to share ideas, laugh and to get that extra shot of energy. Group coaching can facilitate this type of conversation as it establishes an intimate, safe space to talk with those outside your immediate network. A space to keep perspective and maintain your sanity at times; a space to invest in your resilience and step back from looking after others for a short while. Find out more about our group coaching offer.