Career advice

Fear and anxiety can infect teams, but you can harness this crisis to come out stronger

COVID-19 is putting nurses under extreme pressure, so here’s how to help colleagues cope
team of nurses sitting talking, showing importance of debriefing

COVID-19 is putting nurses under extreme pressure, so here’s how to help colleagues cope

Debriefing is essential and need not take up too much time  Picture: Tim George

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the NHS under unprecedented pressure. As nurses and other healthcare staff strive to deliver safe and effective care, they will likely experience a range of emotions, including fear and anxiety.

These feelings can be compounded by the volume of information available, particularly on social media, as people search for meaning in what they are experiencing and ways to cope in their personal and professional lives.

People experience fear and anxiety in different ways and will have different coping mechanisms. But there are common behavioural, cognitive, and psychosocial symptoms that you can look out for to help you manage the fears and anxieties of your team.

Behavioural symptoms – panic, irritability, withdrawal

Staff may not want to come to work because they fear being exposed to the virus and passing it on. They may show signs of panic and an inability to stay calm. They may seem to overreact to situations they would normally cope with.

Staff may appear agitated or irritable, which can affect their ability to fulfil work commitments or responsibilities at home. This could be compounded by lockdown, which is having an impact on all of our daily lives.

While some staff will rise to the challenge and take the lead, others will fade into the background and become withdrawn, waiting to be led by others.

Cognitive symptoms – pessimism, negativity, sense of isolation

It can be hard to concentrate and focus when you are fearful, uncertain and anxious. Although you may feel like you are coping, colleagues may see things differently.

Some people fear the worst and look for the worst possible outcomes that could affect them or their family. This can be difficult to manage as the negativity spreads, creating fear reactions in other team members who had previously been coping.

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This can be compounded by media coverage and the focus on COVID-19 deaths. Although these fears may appear irrational to an onlooker, they are real to the person experiencing them.

With the current enforced self-isolation and restriction of movement limiting social contact and face-to-face communication, these thoughts can become obsessive.

‘Times are tough, but we will come through this’

In addition, the lack of physical contact due to social distancing means we cannot even give someone a reassuring hug or pat on the arm when they are distressed.

Psychosocial symptoms – mood swings, dissociation

As we try to cope with all the changes brought about by COVID-19, including the lack of availability of essential items we take for granted, we can start to feel helpless and out of control and may experience mood swings, hopelessness, and despair. Some people may feel dissociated from colleagues, friends and family, or feel left out and that nobody cares what they are going through.

As the manager of a team, you may feel you have to be the one to lead and put on a brave face. Far from it – your team will likely surprise you with skills and attributes you may not have noticed before, and there are many ways you can cope together and support each other through this crisis.

Practical ways to help individuals and teams cope

Here are some tips to help build resilience in you and your team while navigating this unfamiliar journey.

  • Recognise what everybody is going through Your team will need reassuring that their reactions are not ‘abnormal’ or disproportionate. Acknowledging that we are in trying and uncertain times will alleviate stress and anxiety and reduce the fear of the unknown, and letting your team know that you are also feeling anxious or scared can help you pull together.

  • Have regular debriefs Take the time to talk to your team about what they are experiencing and how it is affecting their performance. Do this regularly, daily where possible – it doesn’t have to be long, you only need the time it takes to drink a cup of tea.

  • Keep things in perspective and work as a team Try to filter out media coverage. Look at what affects you and your team, directly or indirectly, and collectively come up with ways to address challenges. Any changes you have to make will be more successful if your team has been involved in the decision-making process, and this makes you stronger as a team.

  • Support each other Be kind to yourself and each other. Some people will cope better than others so draw on each other’s strengths. This will help build resilience in your team, as will showing appreciation for your colleagues. Share your coping strategies as a team and make sure staff are aware of where they can get help if they need it.

  • Be present You can only control and influence what you are doing right now. Make whatever you are doing the best it can be and don’t worry about the big wide world. You can only influence change with your contribution to it.

  • Communicate Be honest – your team will respect you for it and respond better. Use humour where appropriate and have fun – it doesn’t all have to be doom and gloom and we cope better when our spirits are lifted. If your organisation is closed to visitors, find ways of keeping communication channels open.

  • Review progress and reflect Frequently review the progress of any changes and learn from what went well and what didn’t. Keeping a journal can help you order your thoughts – just 5-10 minutes at the end of the day will help you maintain perspective.

This is a crisis we have never experienced, and may never again

This crisis is something we have not seen or experienced before and may never again. But you can use it as an opportunity get to know your team better, building resilience and bringing you closer together. Times are tough, but we will come through this.

Caron Sanders-Crook is operations manager at Canford Healthcare



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