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Life in lockdown: A manager’s Perspective

Sarah Burton has worked for Choice Support in Wakefield for four years, managing a team of 18 staff that support six people living in their own homes. Here, she shares her experience of running a service during coronavirus.

Across England, Choice Support employs around 2,800 staff to support about 2,500 people with autism, learning disabilities and mental health issues.

It’s been busier than I’ve ever known. The hours we put in as managers have been immense, because straight away we had 25% of our workforce go off work – including staff who had pre-existing health conditions. Over recent weeks, since the COVID-19 outbreak, we’ve all learnt so much about ourselves and what’s really important.

As managers, we are always prepared for incidents, accidents and emergencies. We have risk assessments in place for staff to know how to deal with most eventualities, but where was the manual for the deadly COVID-19? How could we plan for something we didn’t know anything about and that hit us so quickly?

We all created a contingency plan outlining the lowest staffing level we could go down to in a crisis. I looked at the support for each person and what we could offer with fewer staff so that everyone would have the same quality of life and then I put safe staffing levels in place.

There was so much work and planning to make sure each person got what they needed. Then we went on to planning what would happen if anyone caught the virus, how we would support them, and what that was going to look like.

Maintaining consistency

To limit how many people are coming into the services, my staff were happy to work overtime to cover as many shifts as possible. We also thought about family and friends who could come in and help us on standby.

I already oversaw all the staff recruitment in Wakefield, so this is where I came up with the idea of recruiting temporary staff. I suggested changes to our recruitment processes, including over the phone interviews and fast-tracking people through. My ideas have been shared and are now being used across the whole of Choice Support.

I’ve recruited consistent temporary staff for each service to come in at midday to provide a fresh face for activities and to take the burden off any tired or exhausted staff. This is my top tip to keep everyone safe, rested and happy in lockdown.

It’s been so, so busy but I cannot praise the staff enough. They’ve all just pulled together. In some services they’ve even left their families and bought blow up beds to start sleeping in, just so they can protect the people we support in lockdown. This is also providing important companionship and emotional support to people who don’t have family or whose family cannot visit.

Even at the start of the outbreak, people we support had to say goodbye to familiar faces and routines. A quarter of staff weren’t working, and most families aren’t able to visit because of social distancing. We needed to keep consistent relationships and routines going because people living with autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and other needs already find it difficult to cope with everyday life. To suddenly change everybody’s routines could cause significant mental health and behavioural issues.

Carrying on

Another challenge was helping people to understand COVID-19, social distancing and lockdown. Why couldn’t we do the things we used to do? We used easy read messages, memos and signs to help us explain what was happening and we pinned these up around people’s homes.

Hand gels, sanitizers and gloves are still on display as objects of reference to guide everyone into more effective and thorough cleanliness. Face masks as well as gloves have become a familiar sight when we are helping people with their personal care.

We came up with ideas for regular activities to give structure to our days. We bought games and materials for making arts and crafts. We bought a lot of flour so we could bake buns and cakes for our weekly bake-off competition. Staff brought in their Hairy Bikers cookbooks to entice individuals to cook and to pass time following a recipe.

We decided to go for a walk each day at the same time. Some individuals also rely on a daily drive as part of their behaviour management plan and we placed key worker signs in staff’s cars so those people could still go out.

Thankfully, we have technology and we can access a wide range of online activities ranging from art and craft competitions, exercise sessions, through to FaceTiming families who are desperately worried about the outbreak and missing their relatives. Using tablets and phones to keep in touch has made life on lockdown a lot less isolating.

Providing fun is the easy bit, but how do we ensure that the individuals are safe and keeping up with important appointments? One person required a speech and language assessment due to a recent diagnosis of thyroid problems. Again, technology came into play and we used a video conference call so the specialist could watch him eat and drink and assess his abilities. We discovered that this assessment approach probably worked better for the person we support than someone he doesn’t know sitting beside him.

The importance of support

There’s been a lot of anxiety. The media makes you anxious, and my staff constantly ask, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ However, in terms of support from the organisation, this has been amazing. We receive one daily email from senior managers updating us on any advice from the Government. We also have a daily online catch up with other local managers, where we keep each others’ spirits up. We feel that it’s important for us as managers to keep positive and this motivation will feed down to our staff who are on the front line.

In addition, we have weekly vlogs from our Chief Executive, and regular emails and even phone calls from the directors. The support has been endless, and we do feel our hard work is being appreciated.
So, how do you cope in a crisis when there are no manuals or rule books? You have a fantastic team of support workers that pull together when they need to. People who put others before themselves. Staff who come up with ideas for keeping people entertained all day, keeping up everyone’s self-esteem. You don’t need policies, procedures and regulations to provide care in line with your values, this comes from within and this is what COVID-19 has shown us.

Sarah Burton is Services Manager at Choice Support. Email: Sarah.Burton@ChoiceSupport.org.uk Twitter: @Choice_Support

How have you supported your staff to keep going during coronavirus? How are they adapting to carry on? Share your experiences by commenting below.

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