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Podcast: What career lessons can we learn from the Covid-19 crisis?

By Gordon Tinline, Business Psychologist

 

Covid-19 is unlike anything that we’ve seen in recent history. It has dramatically changed our day-to-day lives and the way in which we work, meaning organisations and professionals have had to adapt to this new world rapidly and take on new challenges.

One issue, a prolonged period of isolation could create, is the negative impact on people’s mental wellbeing. So, what can we learn from this experience that might help us to be healthier and more productive both now and in the future? To discuss, we’re joined by organisational psychologist Gordon Tinline.

Below is a recording and transcript of the podcast:

1. For those that may not have listened to your previous episodes, could you give us a brief introduction to yourself?

So, I’m a freelance business psychologist with experience across a wide range of sectors and at different levels. Most of my work in the last twenty years has been in the mental health, wellbeing and stress area with groups and individuals. It’s probably about half of my time currently, alongside more general assessment and development work.

2) The Covid-19, outbreak has touched every part of our lives with everyone’s experience being unique to them of course, but how has your own personal world of work been impacted, and do you have any stories that you can share anonymously, from any clients or contacts?

Yes, it has been impacted like everyone else and I’m very aware of the fact that we’re all having different experiences. I mean one of the phrases I’ve heard quite a lot is that we’re all in the same boat, but I don’t really think we are. I think we’re experiencing a unique set of circumstances, but everyone’s not in the same boat in most circumstances. I mean in my family, my wife’s a nurse, my son’s a police officer, my daughter’s a doctor, so in a sense I’m isolated working at home, but I’m acutely aware that doesn’t apply to everyone. And I think we need to think about that really in terms of the experiences that people are having. In terms of my work, yes, it’s moved online, which isn’t probably a surprise.

So, I’ll give you one example I was doing for one client, face to face mental health sessions with groups. We’ve adapted that quickly and we’re running it frequently actually online and that’s working quite well. It’s interesting how quickly people have adapted to being able to do that and I’ve noticed a few things through that work and other contacts such as, just the genuine care that people seem to have now for each other right at this moment. So, I mean I get the sense when people say, “How are you at the moment?”, that they really mean it and they’re really listening to what people say, and I’ve noticed that in the conversations I’ve been having.

3) After weeks and in some cases months, we are starting to see restrictions being slowly lifted. As such, many listeners may be starting to think about the transition to the next normal and what that might look like. How would you see the world of work changing as a result of the crisis?

It’s not necessarily the case that everything’s going to change. I think we’ll have to try and influence that change as much as we can. I mean, there is a possibility that we return to our old ways quite quickly, but it’s unlikely because we could be in for the long haul with this. So, I do think that people can apply what they’ve learned from this phase. We need to try and create opportunities for that. I mean, the obvious thing is that for lots of people they have learned to adapt to working from home and communicating remotely and there’s some good things. It gives us a platform potentially for working more flexibly.

I think right now it’s giving us a bit of a wake-up call for some people in terms of what really matters and a perspective change of what’s really important in your life, what you want to prioritise now, perhaps it makes you think about what you’ll prioritise when restrictions are lifted, and things return to whatever the new or next normal might be. So, I do think there are some lessons, but I think we need to ensure we actively learn from this phase. It won’t just happen without doing so.

Fantastic, thanks for that, Gordon. I do think it’s incredibly interesting, the topic alone of how the world of work could change and even our day-to-day lives in a lot of ways, I do feel more connected to a lot of my friends and family than perhaps I did before. It can sound a little odd on the front of it, but I imagine that changes will be long lasting, but appreciate that we need to take stock of it once it’s all calmed down.

4) The crisis has perhaps given some professionals who were previously working more hours than they should have been, time for self-reflection. Should we all try to be more present and less busy in our lives once the pandemic comes to an end, and is regular self-reflection a habit we should all try and keep up with?

I think there are things we can learn from this, but when you think about the reflection aspect, for me it kind of depends how you reflect and what you reflect on to some extent. I think ensuring that you don’t become reflective in terms of everything that’s not going well or everything that’s difficult and starting to get into those negative spirals is clearly something to be aware of and try and avoid, but I think being more mindful helps in so many ways. I mean it can help us to communicate better and understand each other better and I definitely think we’re seeing some of that happening right now in terms of the way we’re talking to each other.

And I hear a lot of managers and leaders particularly saying for quite a long period of time, “I don’t find the time to be reflective, to think to do the strategic work. It’s just reacting, reacting and firefighting”. So yes, there’s a bit of an opportunity here that we can learn from. It then for me it comes down to how do we build that in when things start to change again. I think that’s the key, but yes, absolutely. I think there are some good things we can take from having more space and time to reflect, but it has to be in a balanced way.

5) And with this period of extended social distancing, it’s meant that many of us have had to connect with friends, families, and colleagues online instead as I just mentioned, and I know many in our own business have said that they’ve never felt more connected as a team. So, what do you think this crisis has taught us about social connection and its importance in a work context? What do you think we might do differently in this respect going forward?

I think there are some real positives here and just as you say, people are getting to know each other a bit better sometimes, which does seem strange doesn’t it because we’re all more isolated from each other but it’s heartening, and you see it on video conversations and so on. You’re actually getting insights, aren’t you, into the person in a different way. So, okay, you might see children running around or hear the dog barking, but what’s tending to happen is we’re having more conversations about life, our whole experience, who we are and the importance of everything that’s going on in our life really. And that is, helping us to connect with people at a slightly deeper level and that can only be good.

And I think what it can also do once we get to a point where we’re perhaps less restricted, and we’re going back to more regular working in workplaces, offices and factories and so on, is perhaps we’re going to bring our whole self to work a little bit more and be a little bit less guarded with each other. So, I can only see benefits from that in terms of mental health and openness and just feeling that you’re working with people that you really know.

Alright, that’s great and I definitely have to agree with that. You do get some insights into colleagues that perhaps you wouldn’t have done before just by having that view into their life when you’re speaking to them on a video conference call. And funny that you mentioned the dog as well, because I just had to kick the dog out of the room because the mailman turned up so, and he was barking.

6) We’ve all heard amazing stories about communities coming together to help the vulnerable and support key workers, and even in the workplace many are experiencing an upsurge in intolerance, compassion and kindness as you mentioned towards the start of the podcast. Do you think this was missing before and what lessons can we learn for the future? How can we make sure that this is maintained?

Yes, well, I really hope it is maintained, I think creating more compassionate workplaces is very important for mental health in particular and I hope this isn’t a short-lift response to a crisis. I hope we do take that forward. It’s going to be important isn’t it for quite a long time and well, it’s important generally, but the global economy we’re starting to experience what could be for a prolonged period of downturn, that’s going to make life difficult for lots of people in terms of their uncertainty, their insecurity. Some people will lose their jobs, so it’s definitely a time where we need to be able to empathise and be compassionate for each other and hopefully that is something that is sustained well beyond this crisis. So, I’m hopeful in that respect and hope that that does carry on for the long-term.

7) It has been and continues to be an emotional time for everyone with lots of uncertainty as you just mentioned there. Of course, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed now and again, but it feels like many of us have been a bit more open about our emotional state during this crisis, you know, I for one have been, and it’s helped us cope with and process what’s going on and it’s brought us closer together as well with colleagues and friends and family. Do you think this might have taught us how to better express our emotions and is this something we should all be doing more of in the future? I assume so, but especially in a work context.

I think if you feel strong emotions then being able to express them is really important for mental health and perhaps this period will help us to do that and express our own emotions. Probably get normalised, being able to listen and react to other people who are expressing their emotions, perhaps in a work context in a way that didn’t happen so much in the past. I’m very much an advocate of creating opportunities to express and capture and experience positive emotions, but it’s also very important when you feel down, anxious or stressed to be able to express those negative emotions, and I think one of the things that’s happening right now is you’re seeing a lot of fluctuation and often quite quickly in terms of how people feel.

And that’s probably quite a natural response and that may change as we go through this, but I think that kind of emotional openness and authenticity really would be a fantastic plus from what’s a really tragic and difficult situation, because we’re all hearing right now about a crisis that’s building around mental health and will continue to build. This is one aspect that perhaps can help us to ensure that doesn’t become as extremely negative as it could be, so I think this is very important and just being genuine and open and authentic about your feelings can go a long way.

8) I think for many that the Covid-19 outbreak has taught us the importance of establishing a strong work life balance as well. We’ve learned the importance of carving out quality time to spend with our friends and family even if it is just online and we’ve also prioritised moving and nourishing our bodies as well. That’s something I started to do more of, went for a morning run this morning. How can our listeners maintain this as the world of work transitions to the next normal?

I guess the next time that you’re feeling you’re in this spiral of overworking, not finding enough time to connect with friends and family, not exercising enough really from this we should learn that perhaps we need to ensure that we stop and just ask ourselves if it’s worth it and what’s really important in our lives. And hopefully we can start to build some healthier habits, which come out of this period and I do appreciate it’s not the same for everyone, and some will find it much more difficult than others.

But the exercise thing is quite interesting. I heard someone on a conversation the other day referred to they were now going to go out and take their state sponsored exercise, which I thought was quite funny. So, this thing we have that your allowed to go out once a day to exercise, what’s interesting is some people seem to be taking that as an instruction and as a result they’re exercising more. Now, that can give rise hopefully to a healthy habit, but it would be easy to let that slip as soon as things change. So, for me it’s about building these things and integrating them, and when you think about circumstances changing, how do you integrate that into your new working day so that you don’t lose it and find the time for those connections? And I think that can only be of benefit generally for health, but probably will make a big impact in terms of how effective we are, in terms of work as well because we’re just going to be in a better state to deal with the demands.

State sponsored exercise, I like that. I’m going to start using that myself and I think it’s right because I think previously, I was guilty of some weekends of not really leaving the house, maybe just going to the local supermarket, but I am making use of that state sponsored exercise, that one walk or one run a day, whereas I wouldn’t have previously. And it is a good opportunity to make sure that if you are able to do that, to make sure that those habits are formed during this period and for positives to come out of it.

9) I think it’s fair to say that none of us have ever experienced anything like this in our lives before. We’ve had to adapt, and we’ve had to adapt very quickly. I’m sure many of us will be surprised at just how quickly we have adjusted to the changes. Are there any lessons you think we can take away from this and that can be applied to our professional lives going forward?

Really, it’s about reinforcing the need to challenge our beliefs and assumptions about how we can change, what we can change, what we can adapt in our roles and working lives. So, there’s an approach that psychologists sometimes talk about job crafting, so the idea being was that, what you can do to influence the demands in your role, the resources that you can access and so on and doing that in an active way. And I’ve written about that in the past but actually it seems to me like we’re at a point where there’s a real opportunity to do that. So, thinking about what we have learned about how we’ve had to change, we’ve adapted during this phase, what can we take from that to really alter our work and our jobs and the way we work, which will make us more productive and healthier for the longer term.

So, there’s a couple of prompts I think that really helps there. One is to think about how can I organise my activity and influence that to enable me to make the strongest contribution? So, that means you’ve got to have a sense of what your strongest contribution is, which needs discussion with colleagues, with your manager, and then to make that contribution. How do I best organise my time and my activity and where I am and what I’m doing, and I just see an opportunity to have more of those conversations on the back of this and I hope we take it. The other one for me to bear in mind is how can I adjust my role or try to so that it plays to my personal strengths and meets my objectives in a way that’s bringing out the best in me. Very few people have got the power of control just to recreate their job, but you may well have to have that sort of conversation with your manager and with your teams as part of changing into the next phase, and for me that would be a great opportunity and one that we shouldn’t miss.

10) Great, and expanding on that many professionals will have had to find innovative ways and solutions in response to the crisis and some of the issues that is thrown up. How can a timeline at least help us think in more creative ways and can we apply any of what we’ve learned of habits that we’ve made during that time, going forward?

Yes, I’m sure we can and, we’ve seen some and we’re seeing some great innovation happening, particularly in the health service and so on in terms of how quickly people have been able to do amazing things really when there’s that sort of pressure on to do it, and people pull together to make that happen, and again, there’s some lessons in there. I think one thing is not underestimating your capacity and ability to adapt, and reflecting on what you’re learning right now, what you’re capable of doing in that respect and as we move forward, it is this thinking about things in a hopefully balanced way.

I think creating big scenarios in your head about what things might be like isn’t often a great idea. It’s usually better to think in more concrete terms. So, things like, I mean the control influence acceptance thing, I mean lots of psychological approaches are about balancing control and acceptance in that framework of, again, as things progress. Keep thinking about that, that’s not a one-off activity, so keep thinking about what’s in my total control? What can I have no influence or control over? And at that level it’s okay, I have to accept those conditions and work with those and then the middle is the bit which is the grey area and interesting area which is, what can I influence? I don’t have total control over it but what can I influence? And I think in terms of as we move on to whatever the next normal might be, is thoughts of thinking and that sort of conversation that’s going to be helpful.

11) Building on what you’ve just said about what’s in your control. I imagine many of our listeners perhaps are feeling anxious about transitioning to the next normal. Do you have any advice for those listeners that might be trying to cope with that?

One thought I’ve had is once you’re in a position where your working life is going to change substantially again, so restrictions are lifted. You’re perhaps going to be out and about more again, you’re going to be back in an office environment or a shared working space again, I think it would be really helpful to create almost a re-entry plan, which is thinking about the lessons that you’ve learned from this phase, and making that a bit more concrete in terms of, okay and my first two weeks back if you like, what do I want to capture and ensure I share and put in place in terms of some of the things we’ve touched on, in terms of the way you can work differently? Perhaps how you can spend your time more productively?

You could probably, if you work in a team, that’s the sort of conversation. I think it would be helpful to start right now to some degree if you are still isolated. What are we learning? How do we take that forward? Let’s build this plan collectively. It’s almost collectively crafting your roles. My thought is not being passive around this new normal or this next normal. It’s thinking about how can I learn from this experience and influence it and create that to some extent. So particularly for managers, I think that would be a great thing to do, but I think everyone can try and do that to some extent.

12) If you had one piece of advice to help our listeners succeed in the future world of work post-crisis that perhaps we haven’t covered already, what would that be?

It is reflection and reflection in terms of, what you can take from this period and you can build into your life in a way that’s going to be helpful and positive going forward. I think doing that in a way where it’s you capture it. Don’t just let those thoughts go around and then as soon as things change, they’ve gone, and you’ve lost that opportunity, so capture it. Think about how you can capture your learning from this period and if that’s something you may do individually, but it’s really quite powerful to do that collectively as well and have discussions with other colleagues and teams about what we’re taking from that. I think that for me is quite crucial. Otherwise some of the positive stuff is just going to disappear and we will potentially return to our own habits and have lost an opportunity.

About this author

Gordon is a very experienced occupational psychologist (Chartered and Registered) and works on a freelance basis (GT Work Psychology). Gordon has broad cross-sector and multi-level experience. He has worked extensively with the Police Service, in Defence, with the NHS, in Financial Services and with science and engineering companies, as well as a wide range of other businesses.

Gordon’s work is often focused on helping managers and leaders maximise the wellbeing, psychological resilience and performance of their teams. As well as his Masters level qualification in occupational psychology he has an MBA from Warwick Business School. He has recently co-authored a book with Professor Sir Cary Cooper on mid-level role pressures and development (The Outstanding Middle Manager).

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