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Podcast: The state we're in

The pandemic has been a profound event for us in all sorts of ways, and employers need to recognise that and change how they operate as we return to face to face work.


The pandemic has been what psychologists are calling a 'global trauma', affecting many of us deeply. Employers face challenges as we return to face to face working, and must adapt to take account of people's experiences. 

Leading psychologists tell us that making changes gradually can help, and outline how business leaders can identify and respond to their teams' reactions to lockdown. With cognitive psychologist Dr Emma Kavanagh, clinical psychologist Anne McKechnie and workplace culture expert Kate Dodd.

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Matthew Magee:

Hello, and welcome to Brain Food For General Counsel, where we seek out experts to help you navigate the big questions facing you, your teams and your organisation. My name is Matthew Magee and I’m a journalist here at Pinsent Masons.

I think we all feel different to how we did over a year ago before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. You might have suffered grief and loss; or economic uncertainty and anxiety, or stress from the isolation, or burnout from caring responsibilities and home schooling.

And how you are coping will depend on all sorts of things, like your past experiences, your levels of resilience, and the economic and practical circumstances that dictate how much support you had. We will each have had a unique response to one huge, shared experience.

It all adds up to mass psychological turmoil that has probably not been experienced in much of the world in living memory.

This creates an enormous challenge for organisations, and for the business leaders who will set the tone and parameters of a return to face to face working. General counsel have a dual role here, as leaders themselves of substantial teams, and as advisors to their organisations on the right way to approach a challenging situation.

So we have some expert help on hand to talk about what the impact of all of this has been and explain why you’re feeling like you do, and to give some pointers on the kinds of approach staff will be expecting, indeed demanding, as lockdowns ease and we find new ways of being together again.

Dr Emma Kavanagh is a cognitive psychologist who for many years trained police and NATO forces and on how to cope with high-stress, high risk situations like hostage negotiations. She’s an author now and her latest book How To Be Broken talks about some of the upsides of experiencing extreme circumstances. She’ll tell us later about how we can all learn lessons from astronauts and people who spend winters in the Antarctic.

Consultant forensic clinical psychologist Anne McKechnie specialises in the assessment and treatment of psychological reactions to trauma and advises organisations on the implementation of trauma-informed processes in the workplace.

And Kate Dodd is an equality law specialist at Pinsent Masons, having spent some years working on our approaches to diversity and inclusion.

The first thing for us all to understand and accept is that this is an extreme situation – it’s no wonder we all feel a bit odd, as Anne McKechnie explains.

Anne McKechnie:

How the British Psychological Society of whom I’m a member and how my fellow clinicians have approached this as being very much in seeing it in terms of a global trauma. Now what we mean by trauma is something which is unanticipated, you can’t necessarily control the outcome, it has potential fatal consequences, if not life altering consequences, so for that reason it’s been recognised as a trauma and what’s made it more traumatic is that we haven’t been able to have access to our normal coping mechanisms. So our normal ways of coping even when we compare something I think there’s been lots of comparisons have been made with the second world war, the difference there was that actually the life threatening incidents were kind of isolated and predictable. My mother, who’s in her 80s, said at least in the war we could see any potential source of trauma like a bomber coming overhead or there were these things that you could see and there were also periods in between where they were trauma free, in that you could socialise you could carry on with some of our usual practice ways of coping but those have not been available to us in the same extent.

We are essentially a social animal, we rely on social contact and that main source of coping and management and mood management has been denied us. What we also know from psychological research and clinical practice as well is that how people feel very much depends on how they perceive what’s happening to them so it’s really it’s not just what has happened to you but its what you make of what’s happened to you.

So if somebody feels that everything is a threat that merely being outside the house is a threat to their health that they are hugely vulnerable that people they care about are vulnerable they’re emotional reaction is going to be very much different to somebody who might have a more of a response that actually is from the other extreme as somebody who’s a complete denier so you’re emotional response is going to differ and also how you feel is going to differ over time.

We know that when people are faced with anything which is threatening and any way, we have various stages of coping with it. We have shock and denial and there are stages of feeling angry of feeling irritable of feeling sad of feeling guilty until we finally move to a stage of acceptance. The typical example of that is when you’ve lost somebody in a sudden bereavement so there’s that seven sense of I don’t believe this is happening, this can’t be real, it’s a big mistake, they must have made an error somewhere to feeling angry feeling sad feeling guilty perhaps they could have done something different until the final stage of acceptance. So how people feel is going to differ depending on what they’re core believes is about their mastery of the world, if you like but also where they are in that particular cycle.


This kind of sustained stress doesn’t just change the way we feel, it changes the way we operate. Emma trained the police and military on how to cope in situations of extreme stress – helping them understand our brains’ and bodies’ reactions and how to make better decisions. So what exactly does happen to your brain under this kind of stress?

Emma Kavanagh:

When you’re faced with an acute stress you have lots of things happen in your brain, so your ability to think rationally is compromised because of a reduction in blood flow to the prefrontal cortex. We start to rely far more on instinct and on previously learning behaviours and the reason we that is because when we’re under stress the blood flow in the brain changes and you have that reduction in the prefrontal cortex and you also have an increase in the mid brain so the mid below level and that is the area that does things like fight or flight it governs emotional reactions it governs instinct.

So what we find is that when people are exposed to a high-level stressor, they become less logical and more instinctive. The stress response, we tend to think of it as a bad thing but what’s interesting is that there are also positives to it, it’s designed to make us pay attention to our environment it’s designed to make us look outward to be aware of what’s going on around us there’s a fascinating aspect of the stress response called ‘the tend and befriend’ response it make us more likely to work together as a group because that is our instinct when we’re under stress we band together, I think we saw this a lot in the pandemic of volunteerism went up, people were looking for any way in which they could help others because that comes with the stress response as well. We tend to focus only on the bad side but the stress response can actually bring some fascinating positives that we can use in situation like ours.


This is, then, an extreme situation and we have all reacted differently. This presents a major challenge for employers. They will need to show some understanding of the impact of all this on workers when thinking about changes to working practices as offices open and new habits are encouraged and formed.

They have big decisions to make: how hard to push people to come back to offices; how to measure productivity; how to keep remote workers engaged; how to nurture and develop the organisation’s culture.

So how do they start to build a way of working that accommodates the practical changes to working life, and takes account of the trauma we have experienced?

Anne says that organisations have to adopt an approach that is understanding and flexible, and that leaders have a critical role.


One of the things that I’ve been saying to people is it’s really important that you validate people’s emotions. There’s nothing worse if anybody’s feeling distressed in any way whether they’re angry irritable sad anxious whatever they happen to be, there’s nothing worse than somebody is declaring that their emotional reaction is invalid - it’s absolutely vital in any organisation that your senior people model the model so that they’re able to recognise that they felt irritable that they felt anxious that they felt down that they felt worried about what’s going to go on and it’s not something that, it’s something that is broadly acknowledged as being a normal reaction.

What we talk about as clinical psychologists in terms of trauma is a normal reaction to an abnormal event and the last year has not been normal but how we have felt has been very normal so I think one of the first things I would say for senior leaders is to actually be acknowledging that it’s ok to express emotions that are unpleasant and it doesn’t mean to say that you are losing it that you are not coping but they also have to model self care so they have to be able to say I think there’s a terrible difficulty within legal professions of being in their for great long hours. If you’re going to say actually we have an expectation that people are going to have take time to get back into routine working they have to also do that themselves, they have to be able to manage their own anxieties senior management by doing instructing other people to do.

I had somebody I work in an organisation who said to me, I’m really worried Anne because I can’t get my staff to take time off and I said okay are you taking time off and he said no I’m far too busy and I thought well that’s what I mean by modelling the model you’ve really got to be leading by example.


In more practical terms, Kate Dodd says that a mixed model of home and office working is likely to be the reality for many organisations.

Kate Dodd:

I think we’re going to see hybrid working there is a lot of pent desire to be back in the office, we’re seeing occupancy rates going up quite quickly and I think that with the further easing of lockdowns that’s going to increase. I mean there is real pent up desire and demand in people to try and get back to life as normal but there is also a lot of people who are frightened quite rightly so who are worried about themselves or other people and there are also of course the third group of people who have really benefitted from lockdown and have really found a new way of working a new rhythm a new balance in their lives and all of these people are going to have to be accommodated and that’s why I think hybrid is definitely the word broadly in when you’re saying what might it look like in the future, I would say it’s going to look like a hybrid situation. It will be a rapidly changing situation so for example if we start to see parts of the world or particularly jurisdictions being overwhelmed by a variant for example I think that the people will react quite quickly in those jurisdictions so I think GPs need to be open minded.


Kate also warns of the dangers for organisations that try to pretend like everything can go back to how it was in 2019, as if nothing has happened.


I think there’s a real danger of disengagement so from a cultural perspective - we are seeing businesses that aren’t getting this right already starting to lose staff, there’s been an element of people hanging on and battening down the hatches but already the recruiters are talking about a huge surge in people starting to look for new roles much more movement that you would expect in a global pandemic. People I think who are feeling that they haven’t been taken seriously or that they’re not being listened to are moving just with kind of that you interact with on the street saying they’re rushing off going into work the minute that the government announced that there is even if restrictions had been a kind of a message saying everybody back into work now regardless of your circumstances we need you in bums on seats type thing. And of course that doesn’t work for everybody so of course what you then do is you start to lose people’s goodwill and that translates into loss of morale, it translates into turnover it translates into also sorts of issues, very business-critical issues.

The other danger of course is that people are dispirited by business giving up leases already, talking about going into this idea of you’ll only be allowed in the office one day a week, you know no desks are going to be available it’s going to be collaborations base only and we have to recognise that lots of people want to be in the office particularly the more junior people particular people who are still at earlier stages in their career but of course a whole load of people myself included who just don’t particularly like working from home. So we risk disengaging them and I’ve seen and heard already of people who are moving away from businesses who’ve announced this idea of collaboration only office working cos actually they just want to be in an office.


When it comes to deciding what to do and when and how to nurture an organisational culture while respecting individuals’ experiences and needs, Anne thinks businesses could learn from some of the approaches taken in a clinical environment.


Friends working in businesses have said its all very well its home working but actually we’re losing the team ethos we’re losing the company ethos so its how you get back from isolation working and help somebody who’s anxious to get back into the work place. Now what you would do in a clinical setting is you would break it down into stages. So if somebody agoraphobic you would say right lets get to your front door, lets get to the end of your garden, lets get to the end of the street. So it might be that what companies have to do is to actually break that down in saying, for example, come in for one day and instead of it being a work day lets get your key members in, lets get your whole social distance and lets just have a how’s your last year been kind of chat with a cup of tea and make something that’s a bit less task centred, a combination of building up people’s confidence reducing their anxiety as well as addressing their anxiety. Because I think what I’m hearing from lots more organisations is the concern that people are going to simply produce a whistle, blow it and say right that’s us back in guys back to how we were before and that is going to lead to lots and lots of anxiety.


An entire society experiencing this sudden and long-lasting trauma is unique in many of our lifetimes. But there are people who choose to live in conditions a bit like this, where they are exposed to fear, anxiety, isolation and loss of control for extended periods.

Scientists who spend winters locked in the Antarctic with no access to outside help; those who live on military submarines for months at a time; researchers simulating the isolation of journeys to Mars – these are all people who have experienced lockdown-like situations and Emma says that they have been studied closely to see what the impacts are, and that we can learn from that research.


There’s really really interesting research coming out of extreme environments and what that research shows us is how people cope in a protracted isolated environment. So what we see is that we have the initial stressor in about so of overwhelming I don’t think I can cope with this moment that I think most of us felt especially when they said the kids were going to be off school for god knows how long. You see that when people go to the Antarctic for wintering-over periods, that’s a period in which there is no leaving once you’re there you’re there and you are there for six months. It’s an isolation environment it’s an environment you can’t control. So we see that we see that sort of sense of being overwhelmed what’s interesting is after that you often get, it’s called a salutogenic effect, and its almost a feeling of pleasure of accomplishment and yes I can do this and this is incredible. You know people decided to start making sourdough bread people took up projects, you see a lot of this sort of early stage enthusiasm, unfortunately that doesn’t last forever and what you tend to find then in places like the Antarctic is the brain becomes adapted to having less stimulation.

Antarctic researchers have termed it psychological hibernation and I love that term because when they describe that they describe what the rest of us call burnout so it’s that sense of very low affect kind of everything’s a bit meh just get tired you’re heavy nothing kind of spurs to action and we describe that as burnout in the sort of normal situation, but how much nicer is it that in the Antarctic they’re recognising that it’s simply your brain adapting to the demands of your situation.


We’ve talked about the scale of the psychological impact on us all, and what organisations can do in the weeks and months ahead. But are there things we can do for ourselves? How do we give ourselves the best chance of thriving?

Anne says that the one trait that research shows we should all try to nurture is resilience.


Resilience is essentially ability to bounce back, so it’s a bit, when you talk about resilience in terms of like a sort of your seatbelt it’s got to have that ability to give and that ability to keep you save at the same time. But the thing about resilience as well is it’s actually borne out of adversity. When you think of a simple example of a child learning to walk a child learns to walk and falls over continually, if it stood up and walked straightaway and then didn’t fall down for six years it would never get up again. So its that ability to learn from mistakes that we made and to learn from adversity.

One of the things that I’m very interested in is reflective practice, it’s sort of reflecting back on an issue or an event that has happened and thinking how did I cope what did I learn what could I do differently? So I think being able to create a space and a time for people in teams to simply sit down and reflect and thing about how this went that builds resilience. I’m doing that a lot with organisations they’re able to think right okay that worked well that didn’t work so well what could we do differently in the future and together in small groups problem solve, now that builds organisational resilience.


Kate sees reasons for optimism in changing attitudes to mental health at work, while Emma has some tips on thought patterns to avoid and challenges the idea that we are entering a mental health pandemic.


What we have noticed, and I’m sure it’s reflected across many different industries and sectors, is much more willingness to talk about mental health it’s been fantastic to have people engaging on this topic who have never engaged before and that has been a real positive that we can take away from this. We’re also seeing people utilise mental health services faster we are seeing actually the numbers of people accessing that going up and actually at an earlier stage so we’re less kind of long term more serious issues coming to the fore because people are engaging much earlier.


Studies show that rumination, so allowing your brain to run away with ‘okay I have this virus oh my god does that mean I’m going to end up in hospital and I going to die’, you know I’ve always been very good at telling myself the horrible stories, those horrible stories generate a response in your brain as if it’s the truth as if it’s actually happened. Research shows that if you look at what happens in the brain when you’re worrying, the parts of the brain that are dedicated to problem solving have nothing to do with it. I used to justify my worry that I was preparing myself for the future that’s not what I was doing I was torturing myself.

When we perceive ourselves to be under stress and under threat we kind of close down our brain closes down everything narrows our attention narrows our memories narrow on to negative experiences in the past, we start doing the ‘what do I have I can prepare for the current situation?’ and inevitably that’s negative.

When we focus on the positive our brain function changes we bring that prefrontal cortex back in which is good that calms down our stress reaction we look outwards into the world we become better at problem solving we become more creative all of these things have really interesting knock on effects on how we function.

When you approach something with a threat mindset our body enters a shutdown motor it’s protecting itself, our digestive processes slow, our brain function changes. What research has shown is that if people instead apply a challenge mindset it changes how our brains function in that stressful situation. We become more alert to the outside world we use more of the good stuff of stress, our body readies itself our action, our blood is pumped more efficiently, we use our oxygen more efficiently. All of that comes from this simple change in mindset.

I’m not one of those who thinks that we have a mental health pandemic coming if you look at the research what it tells us is most people will respond by bouncing back to where they were before over a course of time, some people yes will suffer from a stress reaction others will experience post traumatic growth. What I think from the employer’s point of view is that it is exceptionally important to acknowledge that there are these three different outcomes that we can expect to experience: not being another source of stress I think is really important.


Emma mentioned post-traumatic growth there. This is another small reason for hope in the months and years ahead, and it is the idea that damaging experiences can have upsides: we learn, we grow, we develop and strengthen. Not everybody does, and nobody is arguing that it is worth the awful cost, but Emma, then Anne, argue that this much-seen psychological phenomenon should not be discounted.


Fascinting research has shown that people who come from a point of trauma, people who have been exposed to abuse, who have suffered from disasters - there are improvements that we can see in them after having been exposed to trauma. Children who are exposed to abuse often become more empathic, people who have been exposed to threats become more situationally aware, so I think my take on it is that for a long time we’ve looked stress and trauma as ‘okay you are irretrievably damaged, what can we do to kind of minimise that?’. What I’m saying is yes you are damaged but are there any kind of gems in amongst that damage? It’s already happened there’s nothing we can do to take that back so how do we use what’s happened to point you on the path to post traumatic growth?


In the wake of adversity we can actually often challenge some of our previous beliefs, change some of our previous beliefs, and actually build from it. So it’s not that trauma is always thing negative sometimes its actually creating something positive, and I think we can see that beginning to happen in this sort of post pandemic world that’s coming out.

People are beginning to change their attitudes towards what’s valuable to them, people are seeing that the things that they really missed have not been the fancy foreign holidays it’s actually being in contact with loved ones, it’s been the ability to go to a pub or a restaurant - that these are the things that really mattered but also that they’re recognising that they’ve managed something that’s been very difficult to manage and probably sometimes have been better able to cope than we thought we would be able to.


Thanks for joining us for the latest Brain Food for General Counsel podcast. Remember you can keep up to date with hour by hour coverage of business law news by the Outlaw reporting team at pinsentmasons.com. Do not forget to subscribe to us wherever you get your poswswdcast, and if you have enjoyed this or past programmes please do rate and review them, it helps us to reach other people who might be interested. Until next time, goodbye.

Brain Food for General Counsel was produced and presented by Matthew Magee for Pinsent Masons, the purpose-led international profession services firm with law at its core.


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