Laura Emson has worked in the NHS for over 12 years and is now working across the London Region of NHS England and NHS Improvement, overseeing staff experience and engagement. Here she shares how finding a new normal has helped her in adapting to working life under lockdown.

Laura Emson

I started this role under lockdown. I wore a dress I’d sewn myself and put on lipstick as if I was going into the office. Somehow it felt wrong rolling from one side of the flat to the other in PJs or jeans and a hoodie.

I’d been appointed a month previously and wasn’t sure how much of what I’d applied for as Head of Staff Experience and Engagement for the NHS in London would still be relevant. In fact, it’s pretty much what I was expecting but with a COVID-19 twist. I was asked to take the lead on health and wellbeing for the frontline staff tackling coronavirus head on in London – the crest of the wave in the UK.

A few phone calls and emails later, I realised the scale of what was happening and felt tiny in comparison. My emails were filled with offers of Easter eggs, toiletries and the football clubs I usually scorned were proving to be valuable community assets. My city was pulling together to help any way it could.

Other offers struck a chill in my heart. Body bags, pop up morgues, and funeral services – people really were dying, and in numbers we couldn’t begin to comprehend, with only a few graphs and predictions to guide us on how we might compare with mainland Europe.

I was used to wandering around the office talking to colleagues, sharing frustrations and receiving assurance. But at home in the spare room, my computer gave me a window into a frenetic world. After a few days I was angry, frightened, and overwhelmed.

Angry because in the media each day the numbers of lives lost were increasing and then a new tally began. Healthcare workers dying of the disease we were all fighting as a million-plus strong team. I couldn’t ignore the pleas for PPE – an area outside my control.

Frightened because friends and family were not immune from the juggernaut of the virus. When might they become one of the numbers?

Overwhelmed because I’m human.

I sobbed and reached out to the network of wonderful women who I can call on for anything and one by one they admitted to crying daily. We talked, tweeted, and texted until the idea of a new normal started to glimmer in the distance and I decided this would be the star to guide me. Nothing could ever be the same again, so let’s make the changes that we knew were so desperately needed.

A new normal

My hopes were immediately raised by the excellent work to collate a suite of apps and resources for all levels of emotional wellbeing. The message was clear: paying attention to mental health was fundamental to the care offered to patients.

I can see opportunities to address historical inequalities, and the impact of COVID-19 on our Black and Asian communities shows how much work there is to be done in recovery and when setting our new standards. I’m having conversations about race I have never felt able to have before and want to honour the bravery of those who have shared their stories when taking and influencing decisions.

In the throes of COVID-19, we have had to accelerate and innovate at a pace never seen before. We had some plans which we had hoped to inch forward in five years, be completed in weeks. And in our new world we can take advantage and achieve change that previously we would have felt impossible.

Our day to day work has changed beyond recognition. Video calls give new insights into colleague's lives, with children and pets joining meetings. Bookcases and other home décor decisions providing a glimpse into someone’s world, or which background in Microsoft Teams is chosen to hide the fact there is a week’s worth of laundry piled up. For the record I love the spaceship, the all-white rooms bore me, and the balloons make me feel a bit trippy. Has anyone missed traipsing between impossible to book meeting rooms balancing cups of coffee, papers, and a water bottle? Me neither.

Society has shifted, the weekly applause and the rainbows on my daily walks bring tears of joy. Queuing in the NHS lane at the supermarket, people to look you in the eye and say ‘thank-you’ meaningfully. As the daughter of a bus driver, growing up in a post office, my first jobs were in retail. All those people I knew were heroes are now lauded as such.

My initial emotions are still present but are now acting as fuel instead of a brake. The hope I have chosen to cling on to is in memory of all those who have died. The purpose with which I work to build this new normal is for them. We can never go back, so our new normal must celebrate, cherish, and continue to clap for our greatest asset – our carers.

Banner photo credit: Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash
Other photos supplied by the author