Kate Allen, CEO Update 22nd May 2020
Throughout Mental Health Awareness Week there has been much discussion about the impact of Covid-19 on our mental well-being. It is encouraging to see mental health being discussed so openly and that historic stigma gradually being pushed away. But mental health and wellbeing doesn’t exist on its own and our physical health can play a significant part in our ability to cope with challenging and stressful situations. We need to look after ourselves and each other; appreciating that each of us are living in different circumstances and will therefore cope and respond differently.
The British Psychological Society has suggested that there are three phases aligned with Covid-19 affecting frontline key workers: the preparation phase where anxiety is common, as there is a lot of uncertainty of what is to come and how the impact it will have; the active phase where people respond to the challenge, pulling together as a team and providing longer hours in the workplace; and the recovery phase, where opportunities for reflection, adjustment to new ways of working and ongoing support should be provided. On our timeline I would say that we are in the active phase, moving towards recovery.
Despite initial considerable anxiety for the majority of the population, there are many people who, whilst they would never have welcomed the circumstances of the lockdown, have found some good elements to take from it; people have spent more time with their children; partners now working at home rather than away; a renewed appreciation of our natural environment; and less pressure of daily life. Whilst the change in routines has been a challenge, across the county there is emerging evidence that autistic people and those with learning disabilities may be less anxious as demands to interact with the community and society have reduced; staff absence has meant their support teams have been smaller and thereby more consistent and restricted choices have mean increased predictability. However there is also a significant section of our society who are experiencing isolation loneliness from being unable to see loved ones; grief and/or distress if someone they know is personally affected by Covid-19; financial difficulties; disruption to their daily lives and routine. And so, for some, the situation has trigged increased distress, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
We are very much aware of the challenges facing us as both a provider of care and support to autistic people, and as an employer to more than 300 staff. Before the virus outbreak we had already been delivering resilience training and guidance to help our staff understand how they might cope and respond to challenging situations. Our Chief Operating Officer, Estelle Christmas, and our Head of HR, Lynn Longland, are also Mental Health 1st Aiders. Little did we know that our focus was to be good preparation for what was to come. We recently launched an Employee Assistance Programme that provides a helpline for all employees 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Skilled counsellors are available to talk, whatever the subject matter, and specialist financial support advisors are also available.
The response of our autism support workers has been to keep providing safe support to autistic people and side step (or in some instances leap) the hurdles and challenges that come their way. I have seen many notes and comments of thanks and gratitude for the reassurance that has provided to relatives, especially those who haven’t been able to see their loved ones for a while. We have tried to ensure that communication devices are available for anyone who wants to communicate with their families and has been unable to as the social distancing must continue a little longer. And our combined efforts have been working. There have been no new cases of Covid-19 this week in either people we support or employees, although we have 1 employee who is still off, recovering steadily, and one agency worker, who only works for us, tested positive for Covid-19. This has meant that 7 autistic people in total have been affected so far; 4 staff have been confirmed (tested) with covid-19 to date and 15 are believed to have had the virus (symptomatic but untested). So far 27% of our workforce have been affected in some way.
Whilst access to testing has improved, there is yet to be any government guidance around further easing of restrictions for those who have had the virus and therefore has (it is believed) increased immunity. It remains an unknown whether those individuals may be transmitters even if they don’t display symptoms therefore we continue to adhere to the revised government measures on going outdoors.
Whilst most of our employees are frontline, supported by their Support Managers and Area Managers, there are 15 infrastructure staff working behind the scenes. They include our finance, HR and admin teams. Each has been working mostly in physical isolation for a number of weeks now which has brought challenges of its own. Fortunately we have been utilising software such as MS Teams and Zoom to remain in-touch with one another. This has been a unique time in the history of our charity and it isn’t over yet. There will be more changes and adjustments to come, but I think we have proved that as an organisation; we can take it, respond to it and bounce back.
I wish you all a good bank holiday weekend.
Kate Allen, CEO