by Dr Louise May Quarmby
Principal Clinical Psychologist, Oxford Major Trauma Centre

Published 30 March 2020

COVID-19 is changing the way we work. Information and policy are updated rapidly, the colleagues we work alongside, the theatres we work in and the conditions we are facing are fluid. Home life is altered too, families stay home, holidays are postponed, shops and schools stay closed. Logically we know it will end, but we are told it is a marathon and not a sprint. So how do we and our teams stay well in such an uncertain landscape?

What we know is when faced with such challenges, worrisome thoughts and uncomfortable feelings show up. It’s natural for us to want to avoid these, however they are normal, and it is far more adaptive to acknowledge them, accept that they make sense in this situation, and focus instead on controlling our own behaviour. Indeed, when so much feels out of our control: how the virus develops, the decisions our leaders make, the thoughts and feelings we experience in response to it all, it is vital to remember that we can still control what we do in this moment, right here, right now. As leaders in your teams, this can make a huge difference to you, your colleagues and your patients.

First, ask yourself what kind of surgeon do you want to be as we go through this crisis? How do you want to treat your colleagues, your patients and yourself in this situation? Given that you will face significant obstacles in your attempts to do your work: lack of appropriate equipment, logistical challenges of organising your teams, decisions around treatment; how will your values guide your actions?

Tuning into your values as a surgeon is vital, however, maintaining that focus in the midst of the threat that COVID-19 brings is challenging. In responding to this, I like Russ Harris’s metaphor, “dropping the anchor”. This involves imagining all the difficult thoughts, feelings and experiences that a pandemic brings as a huge storm sweeping through, while we, like ships, rock in the ocean. Now, we know we can’t change the weather, but we can drop an anchor and hold ourselves steady. To do this takes a couple of minutes and three key steps: Firstly, acknowledge whatever thoughts and feelings are showing up, then -with an awareness of them- connect with your body, notice your breath, push your feet into the floor, and finally engage fully in what you are doing, look around the room, notice what you can see, hear and smell and bring your full attention to the task at hand. This anchoring and present focus allows you choice and control over your actions (in the presence of difficult thoughts and feelings) and these actions can be guided by your core values as a surgeon.

If we think about our response to COVID-19 from an evolutionary perspective, it is adaptive to focus on threat rather than neutral information, after all that is what keeps us and our patients safe. However, in the midst of all this, we need also to make space to check in on ourselves and our colleagues to acknowledge this is hard, to know when we are stressed and to respond to ourselves with kindness. 

Finally, if stress leads us to cut out the things in life we consider optional, life quickly loses its balance. Dropping the activities that nourish you will leave you with only the pressures of work and depleted resources. So, take time to bring in moments of something different, the tunes in the car on your commute, the time to call a friend or 10 minutes of exercise. Listen to your colleagues, be thoughtful in your language, ask yourself am I doing the best job I can with the resources I have available and with compassion? And remember that this too will end.

To read more about these ideas, I recommend: Russ Harris’s: