At the end of March 2020, the UK finally went into a formal lockdown. Schools closed, offices emptied, and the skies were left for the birds.
Linked-in filled up with a thousand optimistic ways to make working from home an Instagram-able tableau – a sort of workstations of the crass; while Twitter just carried on as before, lashed to brown-water log flumes carried down effluent filled rabbit holes.
Lockdown began like a scene from a post war film where Trevor Howard might have said to Celia Johnson in perfectly clipped calmness “Yes my dahling, we have no schools and no loo rolls, but we have our furlough and an undimmed spirit to overcome this despicable johnny virus. Let me light your cigarette in this dimly lit carriage so that our eyes alone convey just how much our love of the NHS surpasses that for our own inconsequential lives”.
However, the romanticism did not last long, soon we were thrown down the laundry shoot into a dystopian scene from our own hellish imaginations. Here was the raw reality of elasticated waists, dunking digestive biscuits in gin and flicking the crumbs into yesterday’s casually discarded yogurt pots. Meanwhile the older children swapped long division and French adverbs for filming their two-year old sibling pour baked-beans over the family cat.
I do not mean to make light of all this. In fact I want to be very serious.
I have mentored lawyers for twenty years and have a good sense of their pressure points as well as their opportunity to feel more fulfilled. It was obvious that lockdown would test us all, and when I offered to listen, I knew it was important for people to feel heard. I can now share some of the predominant themes that have emerged over the last three months of listening. If these themes resonate with you, I hope that knowing they are shared might make our fears, disappointments and anxieties weigh just a fraction lighter.
Working from home for many people is neither ideal nor idyllic. However superfast the connectivity, social connection matters even more; including all those incidental and seemingly inconsequential moments of unplanned conversation. The social network is our gently woven safety net for sharing and receiving clues about our confidence, comfort and wellbeing. Moments that offer miniature safety valves for us to release our cares, and moments that offer the places where we can leave and collect our mood clues.
These moments not only make us feel human, they help us perform better. Instead we are sheathed in layers of digital filters which diminish the experience of engaging and enhance our anxiety at the same time.
What is of even more concern is to hear how some people are being subjected to an incessant drip, drip, drip of coercive bullying. The layering of our guilt upon our undermined confidence is such an insidious combination. Without our usual outlets to share and care, we are alone. Horribly alone.
Leadership in this context cannot be just a jolly all hands check-in to see newly lipsticked smiles and palm-tree virtual backgrounds; it is to call people up, and to listen. It is to say we expect less and that we will support more. It is to know what invisible connections have been lost and to find ways to compensate for them.
Tiredness comes in different forms. There is the tiredness from exertion; the tiredness of not sleeping so well and the tiredness of convalescence. There is however a terrible tiredness that falls on those who feel alone and without hope for a solution. If we know the dawn will come, we will cope with the darkness; but if we doubt the light will ever return, every moment in the dark is almost unbearable. My sense right now is that so many of us are simply exhausted. Worn down and reduced in ways that are both profound and sad.
Leaders must understand how serious this feeling is becoming for far too many people. Leaders must not make assumptions that just because we are all a bit fed up with queuing at Asda, and not being able to hug a relative, that somehow, we just have to cope. This is not about mild inconvenience and needing a nap, this is a visceral exhaustion that is making people feel ill.
Things will not be the same again, ever:
It is true that even in the best of times none of us know what will happen in the future.
A predictable future does not exist for any of us, but before lockdown some of our futures felt more predictable, more within reach. Right now, the uncertainty we feel for what might be next and how the coming years will unfold is palpable. Will we have work? Will we be able to travel? Do our children have the same opportunity to be happy? Will we see live music again? Will we dance in crowded rooms?
The sense of not knowing means we are relying on hoping, and hope is a very vulnerable and very dependent narrative.
There comes with this feeling a sense of loss as well. A lost expectation and a loss of control. We are mostly creatures of habit. We signpost our lives with predictable moments of affirming and re-enforcing emotional re-charging. A sense of renewal, where hope and expectation hold hands on our familiar and well-trodden pathways.
Leadership now is about understanding how this feeling plays out for people. The kindest thing to do, might just be to sit with someone.
I will finish with a sense of my reflections at this time. You do not have to be elderly to feel isolated. You do not have to work in an Intensive Care Unit to feel exhausted and you do not have to be depressed to feel hopelessness. We should not feel guilty just because we are not heroes. We should not dismiss our feelings because some others are bound to be worse off than us. We must not be supervised as if we cannot be trusted and we must not be bullied because we are less visible and less connected to our supportive colleagues and friends.
This is fucking hard. We are not machines.
Look out for each other. Look after each other.
Be kind to yourself. Be kind to each other.
Please take care. Paul x