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Managing change for staff

Drawn image of a line that starts with Before the Change then the line gets messy and tied in nots which is identified as the middle ground and change and then the line goes straight again and is identified  as After Change. And an arrow that represents it continues.

How have the COVID-19 changes impacted on our work as disability Practitioners?  Many of us have had to adapt to on-line appointments with students and getting our head around the adjustments needed for remote learning and exams for students with disability.   And along the way often had to solve completely new problems or approach old problems in very new ways.  We’ve needed to set up home work spaces and some of us juggle additional family responsibilities, as we’ve continued to support our students and perhaps colleagues.  Is it time now for a few deep breaths and consider how we can continue to cope with the uncertainty that COVID-19 brings?

Any change can be difficult to go through. It’s unsettling, as it can disrupt how we think and feel about things, the scope of our work, how we do things, the quality of our interactions, our financial security and even our sense of identity.  And the scope of this change feels huge.

COVID-19 physical distancing requirements have stretched many of us out of our comfort zones. And although many of us may have enjoyed wearing our PJs to work each day there is a certain level  of apprehension and worry not only about how we deliver services but also what the future might hold for our institutions and the sector as a whole.

One thing we do know is that students with disability still need our services and support. Perhaps now more than ever as they navigate the new tertiary learning environment.  And therefore, it’s critical we find ways to cope with this change that allows us to remain resilient and robust so that we can continue to make a positive difference for others.

How can we approach change?

Our brains are sense-making machines which means that we’re continuously creating stories to try to make sense of the situations and experiences we find ourselves in.  While the stories we’re telling ourselves could be currently helping us build some level of clarity and certainty in our work, they aren’t always helpful in helping us adapt to new situations.  When we invest in our stories about how things must or should be as the only right way to go about things then it makes it harder for us to be flexible to other ways.    For example, we may believe that we must have specific timelines about when we’re permitted to be back on campus in order to feel secure.  Or we may believe that changes to our work patterns is a distraction we’d like to avoid at all costs.

When it comes to coping with change many of us have been told the story that change in our organisations needs to be a neat and carefully controlled step-by-process. But this isn’t how things really change.  Margaret Wheatley suggests that in any system (including us humans) change is a messy process that happens when ideas emerge and connect from a range of sources.  Shifting our mindsets to accept that change is just a natural part of any system,  and when it happens it’s likely to be a messy emergent process can help us let go of resisting and controlling it, and instead put our energies in working with the process.  If we want to get better at change, the first thing we need to do is accept that it’s likely to be messy!

How can we support our wellbeing through the process? Here are some tips that fall neatly into 4C’s – Curious, Connect, Compassion and Control that you can use to support your wellbeing as you continue to work from home, and also when you return back to your campus or organisation.   

  • Curious –  while we might want to close down in some way –  avoid, become cynical, cling to what was or be quick to assign blame – in a way to cope with our fear, discomfort, uncertainty or overwhelm,  in the long term this isn’t so helpful.  Instead try to be curious about what is happening when you’re working from home and then when you return to the workplace. What is changing?  Why might it be changing in this way? What part are you playing in this?

    Be curious and make space for both your positive and negative emotions.  Notice how these impact on your body. For example, how are you feeling about the return to campus?  Does this make your stomach turn or does this it make you feel lighter? What support might you want from the team and how are you asking for this?  What are the stories you are telling yourself about the situation?  Notice your reactions and responses and ask yourself what’s helpful and what’s unhelpful.  Susan David’s Pyramid of Needs that offers a model of dealing with our emotions during this time in a healthy way (see below).

    Be open to the new opportunities emerging from the experiences.  What silver linings are emerging?  Consider is this a chance to do something new, meaningful, bold, or perhaps considered impossible before COVID-19.  How can we work with others to explore what might be useful for the future? For example, what UDL principles emerged that we can take further?  Can you flip a perspective or point of view?  For example, a new appreciation for a faculty from their approach to exams?  And chances are not everything went as smoothly as you would’ve liked.  Rather than try to push these under the carpet see what you can learn from your mistakes.  How might you do things differently next time? What have we learnt from what went wrong?

    And how can you use this as a learning and growth opportunity either in your role or personally?  What new information or skills can you acquire?  How can you grow your understanding about what might be possible for the future?  What new things can you try?
  • Connect – reach out to others familiar and new to share your experiences, learnings and hopes. We’re all wired to connect and while it might have been a bit easier to catch up with our colleagues before COVID-19 it can take a little bit more effort when we’re working from home to meet this fundamental need.  It’s also especially important to get reassurance and support from your network in times of change and uncertainty.   And when we’re back on campus see if you can keep up the extra effort you’ve made to connect by checking in with them, expressing gratitude and being understanding about their reactions to the situation.

    It turns out that not only is ‘laughter the best medicine’ it’s also a great way to get through change or tough times.   Use laughter to lighten the mood, give you some distance and space from difficult thoughts or feelings,  get a new view on things, and to help you and others around you to feel better. 
  • Compassion – show compassion to yourself and others through this time.  Most of us have found at least some aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic to be difficult, scary and unsettling.  You’ve probably had good days and bad days and made a few mistakes along the ways as you’ve adjusted to things.  Whether you got caught out checking emails during a Zoom meeting, dismissed a colleague’s worries, not kept up with changes, or spent far too much time in the kitchen between calls there’s something you’ll have not done well.  And no doubt there will again as you return to campus and re-adjust all over again.   If you catch yourself being critical and judgemental towards yourself try to remind yourself that falling short is  just part of being human – we’re all perfectly imperfect – and you’re not alone in your struggles that COVID-19 have presented.  Give yourself the same advice you’d expect from a wise and kind friend or mentor. Also look for how you can help others during this time.  Does someone need a kind ear, an encouraging email or some help understanding a new process?
  • Control -   as our personal and professional routines and lives have been suddenly interrupted by decisions from others, we now no longer have a say in some areas of our lives.  However rather than get caught up or ruminate over what you can’t control try to shift your focus on what you can control.  So, while you can’t control the decisions or the spread of the virus, you can control your responses and your everyday routines.  Creating even the tiniest positive change in your day can help you regain a greater sense of control over things. Develop some new habits that can help you re-establish your working patterns, look after your health and wellbeing or help you progress one of your goals.  It might be doing some more exercise, getting enough sleep, getting out in nature each day, learning a new skill, or rekindling an old hobby. 

    What could you do to accept the messiness of change more?  Which of the 4Cs could you act on to better support your wellbeing at the moment? 

Emotional Pyramid of Needs by Susan David author of Emotional Agility.  Underneath the pyramid are the words: We may not be able to go outside, but we can go inside.  The pyramid has  7 levels. The bottom level of pyramid is labelled Gentle Acceptance - It is what it is.  Level 6 is labelled compassion - Meet yourself where you are (applies to others too). Level 5 is labelled routine - create pockets of healthy routine (and let go of what you cannot control). Level 4 is labelled connection - social distancing not emotional distancing (nurture relationships), Level 3 is labelled courage - stay open to tough emotions: They are expected. Identify what matters most to you. Level 2 is labelled reset - when this is over (and it will be) which parts of 'normal' no longer seem useful to you?   Level 1 at the top of the pyramid is labelled wisdom - life's beauty is inseparable from it's fragility.

Shared with permission of author, Susan David.

Written by Debbie Hindle