One year on, Coaching through Covid continues to offer pro-bono coaching to NHS and other key workers, and to role model agile compassionate leadership. Coachees report benefits such as reduced anxiety, and greater levels of resilience and self-care. Volunteers are benefiting too, reporting a greater sense of purpose, tapping into community, learning and even joy. Liz Hall reports
Many of us remember vividly when we first registered the severity of the threat posed by Covid-19. When we realised just how tough it was going to be for health professionals in particular. And when we decided we wanted to be of service.
For Mark McMordie, the call to action came when he watched a video of medical professionals working in tragic conditions in northern Italy during the first wave. Many coaches, including myself, were moved to respond to his subsequent LinkedIn post inviting coaches to step forward.
I found myself recalling that oft-mentioned question, ‘where were the coaches as the banks crashed?’ I knew simply re-painting my walls or tidying my drawers just wasn’t going to cut it when I reflected later on what I did as the pandemic struck. And it seemed obvious that coaching would have so much to offer.
Within days of posting on LinkedIn, McMordie was joined by fellow leadership coaches Carole Osterweil, Lindsay Wittenberg and myself [Liz Hall], and we’d set up a scheme to speedily roll out pro-bono coaching to frontline workers, eventually as Coaching through Covid (CtC).
Wittenberg says, “I was struck, in particular, by the personal price that some clinicians were already paying. I was hugely engaged by the role that excellent coaching could play. A compassionate, listening ear could provide opportunity for them to express what working with Covid meant – at an emotional, psychological and professional level.”
She had another compelling reason too: “My own son – a consultant anaesthetist – was amongst those catapulted into this new and very challenging situation.”
Gina Lodge, chief executive of the Academy of Executive Coaching (AoEC), was also drawn to the LinkedIn post. “Compelled by a sense of ‘how can I help?’ on behalf of AoEC, I offered a connection with AoEC coaches.” She joined the core CtC team for six months.
We know we’re not the only ones who’ve made a difference. My sister is among those who made scrubs and masks at home, and even following guidelines to stay at home has been a huge contribution. There’ve been other programmes set up by helping professionals. But this is our story of how we responded, what the impact was, and what we’ve learnt.
As I write, almost a year later (24 February 2021), CtC has matched 504 NHS and care workers including doctors, nurses and porters with a coach. It currently has 239 coaches on its books, and has delivered more than 1,294 coaching sessions in 69 trusts.
Coachees report a range of benefits, including increased resilience and wellbeing.
Dr Ravi Mangwiro, a consultant anaesthetist who has received coaching through CtC and now sits on the CtC core team, describes it as “psychological PPE”.
One coachee described the coaching as a “life-saver”. Another coachee even attributes saving a patient’s life to having received coaching. Her coach says, “I received wonderful feedback today from my coachee who wanted me to know the difference this is making in her life. The example she shared was of saving a patient from committing suicide, and reflected that she couldn’t have done this without the coaching support she has been receiving!”
Faced with so many health workers struggling, we were motivated to get going as quickly as possible. We were inspired by World Health Organisation executive director Mike Ryan, who last March (2020) made a powerful video briefing about how to best respond to the virus.
“Speed trumps perfection … The greatest error is not to move. The greatest error is to be paralyzed by the fear of failure. If you need to be right before you move, you will never win,” he said.
‘Speed, not perfection’ became a mantra for CtC. Our first virtual meeting took place on 20 March, three days before the first lockdown in the UK. By 26 March, we were up and running with our first pilot coaching session, with a consultant anaesthetist at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust.
Leadership coach Sasi Panchal, who joined CtC in July 2020, says, “It simply takes my breath away to hear that it was just a matter of days for CtC to go from ideation to actual delivery! It showcases great leadership and the collective call to action when one is moved by others’ suffering and wanting to serve with compassion and kindness.”
Very quickly, hundreds of coaches, and coach supervisors, volunteered, and we were joined by a host of supporters, from Coaching at Work, to the leading professional bodies: Academy of Executive Coaching; Association for Coaching; Association of Coaching Supervisors; Association for Professional Executive Coaching and Supervision; European Mentoring & Coaching Council UK; Henley Centre for Coaching; Hult Ashridge Executive Education; StoryTagger and UK International Coach Federation
Eve Turner volunteered as a coach and a coach supervisor. She says, “I had a sense of wanting to support those who were on the frontline…drawing on skills I had…. I didn’t want to just be an onlooker in such a challenging situation.”
For Turner there were other reasons for getting involved: “People I respected had launched CtC, and I trusted in their plans and their passion. And this was borne out by the adult-adult nature of all the relationships, the way we were valued and made to feel partners.”
High quality, appropriate service
While we were motivated to roll up our sleeves and roll out the service rapidly, we knew we couldn’t compromise on quality, safety or fitness for purpose – particularly given the conditions faced by potential coachees. We knew from the outset that mental health challenges would be part of the territory.
With this in mind, we developed a rigorous on-boarding process. It requires all our coaches to be highly experienced and highly accredited, under personal supervision and to have requisite professional insurance.
We were seeking what David Clutterbuck has described as mature systemic eclectic coaches – highly experienced, able to work systemically and not be wedded to a single approach. Working relationally, they’d be able to offer generative attention and unconditional presence – even when faced with a coachee’s very challenging experiences.
Learning in an emergent system
Compassion, mindfulness and psychological safety are at the heart of CtC’s coaching and are central to the way the team has created and embedded a learning culture.
CtC had clear values developed from McMordie’s vision of what a “healing organisation” and psychological safety might look like. These values are: be of service, reduce suffering, do no harm, be agile, courage, ethics and integrity-check intentions, do the right thing, collaborate, compassionate leadership, inclusiveness and diversity.
Wittenberg talks of humility, of “ego-free and adaptive leadership”, of “[having] no agenda around ‘being right’.”
It’s helped that the team was united around a very strong common purpose. CtC expressed this as:
To be of service to NHS and care sector front-line staff…by offering high quality professional coaching and timely, demand led resources which are bespoke to individual needs and schedules…in a way that is relational, compassionate and tangible…in order to support staff to find meaning, learning and growth from their experiences, attend to their own wellbeing and deliver sustainable care to those they serve.
As well as compassion being part of CtC values, leadership and service, CtC has offered three compassion cultivation training (CCT) programmes. One was gifted by the Compassion Institute to clinicians at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, and two were offered pro-bono to CtC coaches either directly by the Compassion Institute or by a teacher trained by the Institute. All have received wonderful feedback.
To help bring his vision to life, McMordie provided a clear framework for team meetings. These started with a mindfulness practice and were followed by check-ins from everyone. Another regular feature was ‘inquiring into what was emerging’, using Nancy Kline’s timed rounds.
This approach allowed the disparate group of people, some of whom had never met, let alone worked together, to come together quickly as a high-performing team.
Test and learn
We described our approach as ‘test and learn.’ It felt OK to make mistakes, to speak up when overwhelmed, and to try out new things. We knew that a learning, rather than a risk-avoidant culture was in place. And this has made it easy to access collective as well as individual intelligence.
Welcoming clinicians into the CtC core team has been important to help us stay connected to the client’s world, and to access collective intelligence. Since it launched, four consultant anaesthetists have volunteered.
On ‘test and learn’, Turner says: “It’s so often talked about. But to see it happening in reality, to not worry about doing things right…was liberating. And hugely beneficial for personal as well as organisational learning… It promoted a sense of equality and co-creation, of learning on the job and being fleet of foot rather than ‘perfect’, that allowed us to be so much better than we might have been otherwise.”
Walking in fog and psychological safety
We’ve been able to learn and adapt in an emergent system.
Part of this was about being able to acknowledge the shifting and foggy territory we were, and are, in. Osterweil, introduced the concept of ‘walking in fog’ from the world of project management (Osterweil, 2019).
At times being able to say explicitly ‘we are walking in fog, and we can’t really see the way forward’ was itself healing. It promoted psychological safety, and meant we weren’t thrown when things shifted, as with new variants.
“Framing it as foggy gave us an opportunity to embrace the inevitable challenges as just part of the journey and as opportunities to learn, with no judgement attached,” says Osterweil.
This approach was complemented by a partnership with the Fearless Organisation, and access to its Psychological Safety Index (PSI), a tool developed with Professor Amy Edmondson to measure and develop psychological safety in a team.
Panchal describes how she experienced psychological safety as a new arrival. “I was surprised at how compassionate, open and supportive everyone was. From day one… it felt safe to offer ideas and suggestions… anything was possible. For the first time in my working life, I’ve felt heard and seen! I felt I was a part of a team whose members really valued and respected each other, everyone’s opinion mattered and was considered, with respect and inclusively.”
Turner notes the “support, adult-adult relationships, feeling valued, collegiality and collaboration, community” within CtC.
One early example of innovation was prompted by realising how hard it was for NHS workers in overwhelm to take time to sift through the various wellbeing services. We developed a number of internal champions and ‘focal points’ – people who could liaise between CtC and these internal champions. This approach makes it easier for potential coachees to find out about and access our service, and builds recommendation by word of mouth.
We’ve adapted how we support CtC coaches too. We’ve offered CPD around topics including resilience and wellbeing, including with resilience experts Jenny Campbell and
Carole Pemberton, and lately, joy. And early on, we appreciated the importance of CtC coaches being ‘trauma-sensitised’. We consulted trauma experts, and brought in Helen-Jane Ridgeway, an integrative psychotherapist and counsellor and a certified sensorimotor psychotherapist, to deliver ‘trauma pods’ to support CtC coaches in identifying and working safely with trauma. We’ve supplied a trauma resource pack to coaches.
We also learnt that not all front-liners will be struggling. As Turner says, “It was important not to assume that everyone would feel the same. Some frontline staff weren’t traumatised in the first wave. Of course, this could be because they were just getting on with the job and not reflecting, but for some the work was actually quite monotonous, even tedious, compared to their usual work. They might feel guilty for saying so, but for some, their careers were put on hold, they were moved out of specialities they loved and put into roles that were not theirs by choice.
We’ve bumped up against a learning edge around being of service, with many questions surfacing, including:
- What happens when our desire as a coach to help those struggling is thwarted? We don’t meet the criteria to be accepted as a coach on this or another programme? We may not get allocated a coachee? Or our coachee seems fine and ‘merely’ wants career coaching? What does our response say about our own needs?
- How do we avoid tipping ourselves into depleting empathic distress, instead staying more in a nourishing compassionate zone?
- How do we avoid feeling guilty because we’re not on the frontline, then guilty again because we’re finding it tough even though we’re not key workers? How can we be compassionate to ourselves?
Evaluation of CtC is ongoing, currently led by Panchal. One aspect of data is coachee feedback, gathered after the final session (CtC offers up to 12 sessions pro-bono).
It’s clear CtC is having a positive impact on coachees (see box, What coaches say, and feedback image) with benefits including greater wellbeing and resilience, and an ability to cope in challenging working conditions. It’s also having a wider impact, including on volunteers, and beyond.
As one coachee says, “If this is the impact it has had on me, my family, my colleagues, my organisation and my patients then the collective impact must be phenomenal.”
In addition to the coaching itself, it seems CtC’s way of working has rippled out, as we’ve consciously focused on nurturing relationships, including within the team, between coaches and coachees, between the team and our organisational sponsors, and in alliances with professional bodies and others.
Wittenberg says, “I suspect that the ethos of the team transmitted itself to the coaches, and from them to the coachees. It’s helped to resource and strengthen not only coachees, but their families and their teams – enabling learning that can sustain them.”
We’ve also consciously sought to take a systemic stance, outside and within team meetings, and acted with agility where needed.
As well as offering a safe space for coaches to explore difficulties, and serving to build psychological safety within the CtC coach community, our Reflective Practice Groups (RPGs) have helped to surface common themes. We launched these in April 2020 to supplement CtC coaches’ own supervision. Coach supervisor hosts have included Simon Cavicchia, Graham Lee, Eve Turner, Benita Treanor, Mike Munro-Turner and Emma Donaldson-Feilder.
Common themes have included:
- Clinicians used to feeling in control, and thus struggling at times when it’s so much harder to feel this way
- Health professionals used to staying strong and looking after others struggling to focus on self-care
- Systemic racism
These themes have helped informed next steps. For example, the theme of systemic racism has prompted us to step up what we’re doing in the area of diversity and inclusion. We’re trying harder to reach out to communities including midwives, nurses, porters and cleaners who may be from BAME backgrounds, which have been at times harder hit by Covid-19.
We realise that in these communities, coaching may not be known about or trusted. Ella Clark, core team CtC member, and a coach, is boosting coverage on mainstream social media to promote CtC, with stories being gathered from BAME coachees.
We try to recruit coaches of colour where possible and we’ve identified which of our coaches have experience in coaching coachees of colour. Hall and Panchal are currently exploring further steps as part of the CtC Working Group on this topic. We’re following up a well-received webinar in 2020 from leadership coaches of colour Jackee Holder and Jenny Garrett, with webinars from Salma Shah, and Jenny Plaister-Ten.
Impact on volunteers
CtC is also having a positive impact on many volunteers, offering community, meaning and purpose, learning and growth, and joy, even in the midst of trauma and crisis. This has certainly been my own experience, and that of others too.
Reducing the likelihood of empathic distress is likely to have been the case for a number of the volunteers as well as coachees. Health psychologist and a co-creator of the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training programme, Kelly McGonigal, in her presentation at the online Compassion in Therapy Summit on 30 January, distinguishes between empathic distress and compassion fatigue. But she says that “even if we’re doing everything right”, we can tip into compassion fatigue if we feel our system is unsupportive. Antidotes include tapping into community, and accessing joy, both of which CtC have fostered, almost as by-products.
Osterweil says she’s accessed “joy on a daily basis” through participating. And Lodge says, “I have experienced the joy of working with a team whose sole focus is to try to support those in need at a pivotal and unprecedented moment in time, which will become all our history at some point. It may sound odd to say you can experience joy in such difficult circumstances, but in such dire times, working with an amazing team unselfishly focused on the benefit of those in need has been a heart-warming lesson to learn.”
Wittenberg too says she’s attained, “Joy through a sense of deep connection and trust with the other co-founders, and with other colleagues, in tandem with a deep sense of shared values and generosity of spirit. Joy through a sense of making a contribution to enabling what our coachees needed to be resourced and resource themselves in their various extreme and not-so-extreme situations and making it easy to access.”
Meaning and purpose
Having a sense of greater meaning and purpose comes through strongly, from members of our operations and administrative team as well as coaches and co-founders. As Osterweil says, “meaning in a time where it would be easy to lose a sense of purpose and meaning.” Wittenberg talks of having gained “an opportunity to more clearly and profoundly realise, and find expression for, what my personal purpose is”, realising “what a significant impact our philosophy can make on all those who come into contact with it.”
Many of us have gained confidence. I certainly have, in these alternative ways of working, in the power of more spacious mindful coaching, in the contribution compassion can make, for example.
Osterweil says she’s gained “confidence in myself and my abilities and shall we say ‘less conventional’ ways of thinking and being…. I’ve found my voice, and discovered an ability to communicate with far larger groups than before. I’ve become far more disciplined about meditating and happy that I embody all that lovely ‘good leadership practice’. I’m even more comfortable speaking about uncertainty.”
It’s unclear what CtC’s future holds although it has no plans to stop providing its service at present. Demand for coaching continues and the road to recovery is long.
Recent research from UK health charity, the King’s Fund (February, 2020) highlighted that those in health and care are “at an increased risk of developing mental health problems following disasters, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and compassion fatigue”. The report underlines the importance to recovery of access to psychological support.
Is it possible that CtC has helped to avert severe mental health problems further down the line in some of our coachees, perhaps even in ourselves? Time will tell.
Certainly, as Wittenberg says, “Nearly 500 individuals, their families and their colleagues, may now know much better how to resource themselves and maintain their wellbeing and balance, their health (physical and mental), resilience and their perspective, motivation and sense of purpose, in the most demanding of circumstances.”
Perhaps we’re even contributing to much-needed wider systemic changes.
The King’s Fund report calls for “longer term cultural change…to ensure collaborative, compassionate and inclusive working environments, with leaders at all levels tackling workload issues and leading cultural change… .” At CtC, it feels we’re role modelling an approach enabling this.
Turner highlights how at CtC, we’ve provided “a truly generative, more living system type of ‘leadership’ and listening and really hearing, being open at all times to learning at all levels. (It’s) brilliant role modelling.”
It feels we’re part of a movement towards more compassionate workplaces. Perhaps we’re even among those leading the way.
In these disruptive times, which show no sign of easing, agile compassionate leadership is the only approach that makes sense. We’re testing and learning how to bring such an approach alive – on a small scale at least.
Whether or not our legacy proves to be long-lasting, there’s comfort to be had, as Osterweil says, from “knowing that when the need arose, the coaching profession was able to respond by modeling everything it stands for”.
- Liz Hall is a co-founder of Coaching through Covid and a coach on the programme. She’s the editor of Coaching at Work.
Impact of coaching on CtC coachees
- Increased wellbeing, including around self-care
- Greater resilience
- Increased self-awareness
- Greater clarity in cognition, behaviour and emotional regulation
- Developing an ability to cultivate mindfulness and be more fully present at work as well as at home
- Accessing time to pause, reflect and then re-engage, at work and at home
- Boosted confidence and trust in self…speaking up (more)
- Greater ability to navigate the pandemic
- Having a ‘safe space to talk freely’
Issues covered in the coaching have included:
- Leadership at a difficult time
- Distress and overwhelm
- Making time for self-care, refocusing energy on self, setting boundaries
- Addressing boundaries
- Confidence with decision-making and relationships
- How to respond to challenges
- (Dealing) with enormous work pressures and work challenges during the pandemic
Source: data from coachee feedback
What coaches say
- Empowered, curious, confident, valued, calmer, happier.
- My coach was an amazing listener and very compassionate.
- I used to stress about shifts before they happened. Now I am learning mindfulness techniques and ways of approaching this.
- I am noticeably calmer, more resilient.
- It’s had an incredibly positive impact on all areas of my life.
- I had a high degree of anxiety and was finding it difficult to manage the uncertainty and the difficult emotions that I was feeling…., I am now much more mindful and generally I feel calmer and more able to cope with the frequent changes at work. My relationships at work and at home are also more positive and I feel more able to cope with the uncertainty.
- A new-found layer of resilience.
- Strength to get through the immense challenges within my roles.
- The programme has been a life-saver for me and the way it was designed and implemented has provided me with vital support – I don’t know how I would have coped without it.
- Dr Kate Sherratt, consultant anaesthetist, and a member of the CtC core team, shares how coaching helped her offload and process what’s going on: https://bit.ly/36lngS2
- CtC has re-opened coach applications (although can’t guarantee you’ll get matched quickly). If you’re interested or would like to help with matching, coach selection, or managing relationships with trusts, contact:
References and further information
- C Donohue, Coaching through Covid-19: psychological safety and compassion, in Bulletin, 123, September 2020
- ‘Covid-19 recovery and resilience: what can health and care learn from other disasters?, The King’s Fund, 4 February, 2020
- C Osterweil, ‘Walking in Fog – how accepting unorder can unlock project leadership’, in Project, May 2019