By Jason Borucki, Human Services at UC Davis Continuing and Professional Education
On April 2, Human Services at UC Davis Continuing and Professional Education hosted a webinar for eligibility/self-sufficiency leaders focused on navigating the often-overlooked psychosocial impacts of a crisis in general, and with COVID-19 in particular. Presented by clinical and organizational psychologist Beth Cohen, the trauma-informed webinar examined some of the atypical leadership behaviors required during these challenging times, as well as trauma-informed leadership practices that can help reduce workforce burnout and stress.
"No one is going to argue in any way that the tasks at hand [related to service delivery] are not important," said Cohen, "but during times like this, people management is also very important—being able to manage the emotional and psychological stuff that is going on with your staff so that that itself doesn't overwhelm the ability to [deliver services]."
Using a trauma-informed and neuroscientific lens, Cohen also discussed ways in which leaders and their staff can help avoid the tendency to remain in a constant vigilant, fight-or-flight state during a stressful and unprecedented crisis.
"We need to be able to allow ourselves [and] our staff to go into a relaxed state," she said, "to be restorative, to be able to actually experience some healing and possibly even a little more balance."
One way to accomplish this is almost surprising in its simplicity.
"Just as we've been told to wash our hands so that we don't potentially get [and/or] spread the virus," she explained, "as a psychologist, I will tell you that if you increase your focus on your breathing, you will be able to go from here [a vigilant, fight-or-flight, sympathetic nervous system dominant state] to here [a rested, healing, balanced and restorative parasympathetic nervous system response]." Getting the body and brain out of the former state is essential to overall health and well-being, as well as keeping an immune system strong.
The role of leaders in affecting this form of secondary trauma and/or burnout inoculation is one Cohen emphasized strongly.
"It's important to know that leaders are culture-setters," she said. "I don't mean to add to [leadership's] plate, but I will say to you that it's very important that you take good care of yourself so you are able to model that for your staff."
While many of Cohen's crisis-response suggestions and strategies are ones she has long championed, she also acknowledged just how difficult and unique a challenge it is for eligibility/self-sufficiency leaders and staff to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic in particular.
"All of you [in attendance] are pioneers," she said. "Our leaders are pioneers because they are absolutely navigating uncharted territory in terms of how to lead during this time.”
"For line staff," she continued, "you are pioneers too. There will be a whole different demographic that will need services, and you are pioneers because you're the ones that need to be able to chart all of that and make it happen."
Leading Reentry to the Workplace
Leading the workforce back to the workplace is a monumental leadership task. COVID-19 has created, and will continue to present, remarkable challenges. Responsibilities of keeping staff physically safe while also attending to psychological and social issues triggered by this pandemic are novel and complex.
On June 8, Beth Cohen presented a follow-up webinar on this topic to human services professionals across California.
The psychosocial effects of COVID-19 are expected to last much longer than the virus itself. Understanding and addressing these issues while creating a reentry plan is needed in order to optimize success. We all have been impacted in different ways by this pandemic. Some individuals will return stressed while others will return reenergized; some will not even return. The webinar addressed key psychosocial challenges and offer strategies to confront these issues. The goal is to minimize negative impacts and maximize adaptability, resilience and post-traumatic growth in our workforce, as well as ourselves. More so than ever before, employees will be looking to their leaders for support, guidance and direction.