Behaviours for leading through COVID-19: 1. Looking after your teams
A guide for leaders
Look out, in particular, for those driving themselves beyond reasonable limits, those team members who withdraw and seem to reject offers of help, and for those who might feel excluded from the team.
Why this matters now
As a leader, your key role is always to guide and support your team. In crisis this becomes more challenging with disrupted communication and work patterns, on top of acute pressure to deliver. To compound the difficulty, the people in your team will not always react to pressure in the ways you expect – some may have strong emotional reactions, while others may appear to withdraw, not asking for help when they need it.
It is vital, therefore, to have a system enabling you to monitor your team so that early warning signs can be recognised and appropriate support can be offered in a timely fashion.
What can you do?
1. Prioritise team wellbeing
There is a tendency in crisis for all communication to become about the issues at hand. Individual concerns can feel like a lower priority and team members may feel that their own struggles are insignificant given the bigger picture. Yet, everyone has their limit; if acknowledgement of vulnerability does not exist, burnout or failure are far more likely.
Checking in daily with each member of your team is critical to supporting their wellbeing. A helpful method is to incorporate a daily ‘pulse check’ into your team briefings:
- Giving you an up to date picture of how people are managing
- Giving your team permission to prioritise their own mental health and to recognise this as important
- Sharing responsibility across the team to keep an eye on each other and be aware how others are managing.
2. Pay attention to individual needs
The leader needs to be attentive to the behaviour of different team members, and understanding of the factors which might lie behind them. For instance, it may be necessary to take account of:
- Their own pre-existing health conditions
- Past traumatic experiences which have affected confidence or resilience
- Faith issues – for example, Muslim colleagues observing Ramadan may have their energy levels affected by the cycle of fasting
- Self-isolation or separation from family are likely to impact many staff members
- Neurodiversity – for example a team member who has dyspraxia may find rapid change highly stressful.
Not all the indicators will be obvious and when people are struggling mentally and/or physically, they don’t always raise their hand to let you know. Small signs such as changes in behaviour, withdrawal or a deterioration in the quality of work can all be indicators.
A useful briefing paper on supporting the psychological welfare of healthcare workers has been produced by the British Psychological Society, and is available at this link: https://www.bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/psychological-needs-healthcare-staff-result-coronavirus-pandemic
3. Build collective strength
The greatest guarantee of team resilience will be come from an environment of mutual support and trust. As leader, you can facilitate this by:
- Providing clarity about all team roles and individual contributions
- Ensuring there is equitable rotation of roles – allowing everyone periods of low intensity work
- Avoiding over-reliance on “go to” team members
- Maintaining regular communication forums, where everyone gets the opportunity to be heard
- Undertaking some planning, review and problem-solving activities together.
There is a useful overview of steps that can be taken to foster team spirit and cohesion provided by the Kings Fund, and available at the following link:
It looks at the overall response to stress, and although it is focussed on hospital staff, most of the guidance has general relevance across the wider NHS.
4. Focus on what is going well, not just what needs to improve
Under stress, retaining a positive outlook can become harder, yet it may well be the deciding factor in achieving team goals. Effective leaders stress the positive and highlight success rather than failure. Collective and public recognition of good outcomes helps to retain purpose and energy while focusing entirely on what went wrong is demotivating. There is a time and a place for reflection and review, but in the heat of the moment, retaining and demonstrating an optimistic, yet realistic perspective can be a significant motivator.
5. Be prompt in helping staff to manage their concerns
If you suspect that someone is struggling, an individual wellbeing conversation may be required. Make it clear that it is NOT a performance conversation and will not be treated as such. Emphasise confidentiality, if appropriate, but be mindful and communicate that you may need to tell others if there are concerns over the safety of the individual or of others. Keep your boundaries, recognise that you are not expected to have all the answers and may need to signpost to other support. The important thing is to show empathy and understanding. Often being available to listen is enough.