Pandemic fatigue & Your Team: How StrengthenME helped

Thursday, December 16, 2021

What is it like to lead a team of people who are trying to work during an extended period of global calamity when the pressures of work, family and survival are all simultaneously turned-on full blast?
“It’s both challenging, and deeply rewarding. That’s what it is,” says Becky DeKeuster. She’s the senior manager of the CDC’s COVID-19 Contact Tracing Program and responsible for helping a team that has ranged from 20 to 50+ people hold up under the job of informing people they’ve been exposed to a potentially deadly virus. As the pandemic stretched on for almost two years, the particular challenges of contact tracing work changed.
In our second COVID-19 winter, many Mainers are suffering from “pandemic fatigue,” and some share with the CDC contact tracing enrollers their frustration over masking and quarantine recommendations, vaccination rules, or even the CDC. Contact tracers must navigate these calls professionally, in order to fulfill their public health education mission and encourage even the skeptical to quarantine, test, and monitor for symptoms. Tracers also listen for the problems that can get in the way of people doing the right thing, such as getting groceries lined up or arranging for well-visits to an elderly friend or relative, and help connect even the most reluctant, scared, stressed Mainers with support agencies. 
“We understand --we’re also tired, frustrated, even grief-stricken,” Becky acknowledges. “My team members needed a safe space to acknowledge and express those emotions rather than bottling them up or ignoring them.”
Knowing the State of Maine had developed an extensive suite of coping resources, Becky signed her team up for a facilitated group discussion with Northern Light’s Work Force – EAP through the Strengthen ME program.* A facilitated group discussion is not right for everyone. The idea of coming together with co-workers (or anyone) to talk about feelings doesn’t always sound like a good time or a good idea. It sounds like the exposure of all the things we are carefully trying not to let people see in an effort to pass as a capable, functional person able to bear up and do our job, just like everybody else seems to be able to do.
Given that caution, there is an art to creating the safe space where people will let down their defenses long enough to make the discovery that they are not the only ones struggling. Yemaya St. Clair and Ariele Worrall are the Work Force – EAP counselors who artfully created the space for the contact tracing team in October 2021. The hour started with Yemaya and Ariele letting the team know what they understood about the nature of their work and the stresses that go along with it, then casually opened things up.
“They did a great job of eliciting responses and getting the conversation going without being directive or calling on people,” said Becky. “I don’t know how they do it, but they are so good it’s astonishing.”
Over the course of the hour, the contact tracers talked about everything from professionally difficult calls to personally difficult situations, with Yemaya and Ariele weaving in validation for each person’s experience as they went along and helping team members connect with a larger context to make sense out of what was happening. Probably not surprisingly, in some form or another, grief returned over and over as a recurring theme. By the end of the session the contact tracing team had identified just how much collective grief there was among them: grief that there was another surge, grief over vaccine resistance, grief over personal or political differences with family members, grief over the loss of loved ones.
For all the heaviness, though, there was something about sharing the experiences of their joint realities with each other that left them lighter and happier.
“It was transformative and uplifting,” Becky told me. “No one came out with any particular answers but that wasn’t what we were there for. We were there to acknowledge the challenges we face, whether at work or in our private lives, and let go of what negative feelings we could. What I didn’t expect was how unifying, how reassuring, it is to share and to let go of things, together.”  
*Strengthen ME – what you need to know
StrengthenME is a grant-funded program developed by the State of Maine which allows for a wellbeing storehouse of costly services to be completely free for all individuals and businesses in Maine. Work Force-EAP is one of the service providers – and a primary one since their services are so comprehensive – offering support through this grant in addition to a number of other service providers in the state.
Everybody – what you need to know
A facilitated group discussion is but one of many, many resources available for free to every individual and business in the state of Maine through May 2022 when the Strengthen ME grant ends. There are one-on-one counseling sessions, workshops, presentations, wellness breaks, group discussions……Strengthen ME is like a wellbeing candy store….you just can’t believe how much good stuff there is in there.
Managers – what you need to know
This facilitated group discussion opportunity is free --- along with an astonishing number of other services and resources for both individuals and businesses – through May of 2022 when the Strengthen ME grant funding ends. After May, your department will continue to access the array of training services offered through Work Force – EAP, of course, but you will have to go back to paying for them.
Editorial Note on Yemaya and Ariele – what everyone will be happy to know
It became clear to me in my conversation with Becky that uplifting and transformative experiences doesn’t just happen; Yemaya and Ariele were the critical agents of this one. I wanted to know their do you elicit responses without calling on people directly? How do you create this safe space that opens people up? I asked Becky what they did to facilitate that and she laughed. “I’ve been an HR manager, I’ve participated in countless facilitated discussions and I’ve facilitated group sessions myself. Hands down, they are the best I have ever encountered in my professional life. What did they do? If I knew, I would do it too!”
If I were a manager I would be signing my team up for one of those free sessions so fast…..
Check out these resources, folks. We have access to a world of ways we can support our wellbeing.
To health, happiness and a new year of possibility,