Fear, anxiety, guilt and imposter syndrome – not normally the responses you’d expect from comms professionals when describing how they feel. But these are not normal times. CommsQuest’s David Norton and his team have been helping comms pros and other business leaders to pause, reflect and refocus in an attempt to help prevent the national lockdown leading to a personal shutdown. 

22nd May 2020

Crises are nothing new. In just over 20 years, we’ve experienced Y2K (1999), the fuel crisis (2000), foot-and-mouth disease (2001), swine flu/SARS (2009) and Ebola (2014). We’ve also had a banking crisis to contend with… and the Brexit saga.

We’ll cope like we have always coped. With resilience and resolve. But something feels different about the coronavirus pandemic. It is global in scale, and has spawned its own alarming language: lockdown, social distancing and furloughing.

More than in any other crisis, our fellow internal communication professionals are being thrust into the centre of their organisation’s pandemic response.

While it is gratifying to finally have a seat at the table, the flipside of the coin is that members of the IC community are not switching off. It’s in their nature – it’s one of the reasons why they add so much value in “normal” times…

This inability to find the brain’s off switch – especially in today’s isolation-working scenario where home and work become blurred – means that many IC professionals are under constant pressure. In a heartbeat, “busy” can become “overloaded”. From there, it can be a slippery slope to “overwhelmed” and, for some, mental ill health.

Embrace the FEAR

I’d encourage IC professionals to think about themselves, talk with their teams and tell their leaders how they are managing with the current volume, structure and pace of their work. They are not robots, so must take time to stop and reflect, and in a perfect world act like a client for once and allow someone else guide them...

At CommsQuest, we created the FEAR model. There are some 30 questions, so here’s a flavour.

  • Focus: where is it, how effective is it, and how quickly do you lose it
  • Energy: where is it now? Where is it coming from, where is it going – and is that the right priority?
  • Anxiety and stress: what level are do you experience? Do you feel a knotted stomach? Have the booze levels crept up?
  • Resilience: how confident are you, really? Do you feel in control or are you losing it? Do you feel you are making a contribution – and are you staying connected?

The aim is to provoke people to think about their working patterns, consider how the shape of their day is evolving, and contemplate how this might lead to issues if not addressed.

Healthy body, healthy mind

We know there are certain physical and emotional cues that influence our health, mindset and overall performance. We also know these are the first essentials to drop when we are under pressure or in a state of anxiety. These include sleep, energy, patience, motivation:

  • Sleep patterns: many of us struggle to get to sleep, or wake in the early hours. Some of us are at the other end of the scale and oversleep or struggle to get out of bed in the morning? There are tools you can use to improve this quickly – for example, turning off devices an hour before bed, changing out of “work clothes” and allowing down time, avoiding certain foods and making the time for exercise.
  • Energy: few of us consciously consider where our best source of energy comes from, let alone where (or whom) it goes to, and whether or not we are wasting it. So, you can complete a simple energy heat map, where you consider the source and destination of positive and negative energy, whether it is the right priority, and where changes are needed.
  • Patience: Many comms pros live with partners and kids, all locked under one roof and all trying to work and study at the same time in a building not designed for this way of life. So, no wonder we get tetchy with each other, or we miscommunicate. One thing we ran for the first time recently was a comms-style tool with clients and their partners – a kind of Mr & Mrs. The results were enlightening and entertaining. It’s also useful to remember that, as comms pros, of course we need to engage with our audiences and stakeholders, but we also need to engage with our families and our own needs.
  • Motivation: few of us take time to think through what really motivates us, so when times get tough, we don’t have a natural reference point or anchor to focus on. It can be helpful to complete a Motivation Map to help reveal what’s really important to you and how it is different from the motivations of others in the same role.

Today’s leaders must support their teams on these issues and give them time to stop and reflect. Leaders can use the same questions to talk with their IC team about how they are managing with the current volume, structure and pace of their work.

A great boss will also walk the talk themselves, by taking breaks, encouraging downtime, limiting non-work hours contact and sharing their natural concerns – in a positive way.

Time to decompress

After talking with a client in comms at a TV company, we realised that there was some value in IC leads offering individuals in their teams the chance to have a decompression session – a call with an external professional to vent, share and reflect, as well as to think logically about their work and personal challenges.

We could see that our client’s comms team was balancing rapid and colossal operational changes with personal change; and that inevitably, at some point, positive energy and professional commitment was going to put a strain on personal resilience and wellbeing.

The bulk of online internal comms advice focuses on the how-to’s – how to work from home, how to use Teams, how to facilitate virtual meetings, etc. The real value for me was the human perspective – how can companies help leaders and communicators maintain their high performance during prolonged periods of uncertainty?

Just the Tonic...

We designed The Comms TonicTM, based on neuroscience, counselling and neuro-linguistic programming techniques.

While not designed to replace occupational health interventions, it gives teams a safe place to think about changes they can make to maintain their performance. It can make them more self-aware and highlight those work areas that may need to be addressed right now.

I scoped out what became a two-step approach to getting the issues into the open and offering a few tangible tools and techniques to address them.

The first focuses on the “Professional you”, looking at how you’re managing yourself, your work and your team. It gives you a chance to vent and think about changes you can make, to maintain your high performance. It gets you thinking about the warning signs. And it flags any work areas that you many need to address right now.

The second focuses on the “Human you”, looking at how you’re manage your wellbeing and that of your team & family; what issues may be affecting your energy levels and your ability to cope with work and home-related stress. And what niggles might you need to address before they become problems.

In the past few weeks, we’ve facilitated virtual sessions with clients in tech, FMCG and food retail – where a HR business partner had been thrust into a comms role, supporting remote engineers. The themes are varied, but there is a pattern and, if left unaddressed, people will struggle.

The work pattern is that we continually dip in and out of our devices, check emails late into the evening and first thing in the morning, keep the news on 24/7 and keep pondering what this means for our work audiences. As a result, we can forget to pause and one work day can merge into the next, at which point we can lose our edge or our performance drops.  

On the personal side, we take our partners for granted, we don’t have as much quality time with our kids, we lose out on sleep, we don’t eat and exercise properly. The net result is we run on half a tank – and that impacts our home and work performance.

The next steps for professional resilience include examining how your communication style differs from that of your partners and colleagues, and reflecting on what makes the ‘communicator you’ tick, i.e. what states and triggers impact how you communicate, and what could you change?

And personally, ensure you get quality sleep, and understand how to better balance work life and self to stop you feeling torn and to leave more time for you.


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