Overcoming crisis fatigue – why coaches need time out(side)

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Far from the usual crisp Autumn of new notebooks and fresh plans, this term started murky with uncertainty. Crisis fatigue lingers on through the HE sector, with students hacked off, academics burned out, leaders overwhelmed and professionals fed up with navigating constant change and frayed tempers. Yet the new term still marks a transition with new students, strategies and systems underway. This strange contrast – initiating new beginnings without a clean break – is a hallmark of this phase of the pandemic and presents significant challenges for coaches and clients alike. Katy Milkman, a Wharton business school professor and author of a new book How to Change explains that whilst the pandemic rumbles on, we haven’t yet experienced a ‘fresh start moment’.

“Clearly demarcated fresh starts give us renewed motivation and help us pursue important goals. But for most of us, that fresh start hasn’t materialised” Milkman explains.

Instead, we are collectively fatigued.


Coaches and Pandemic Flux Syndrome

It’s not just our clients who are fatigued, it’s coaches too. Turning up for my last group supervision session, I felt unusually flat. But as we all checked in, we found we shared the same blunted emotions. Perhaps unsurprising given that this is a classic symptom of ‘pandemic flux syndrome’. Psychologist Amy Cuddy and JillEllyn Riley coined the term to describe the emotional fluctuations many of us are experiencing during this phase of the pandemic. Other symptoms include sadness, anxiety and strong urges to make dramatic changes. Thinking about it, I couldn’t think of a client or a coach I knew who was unaffected by pandemic flux syndrome. But it raised a question.


How to regain coaching presence?

Whilst we are all in this strange liminal phase together, how do we, as coaches, resource ourselves so that we can be fully present for our clients? I found that many of my usual practices didn’t work.  Yoga and breathing exercises irritated me, books didn’t inspire. The only thing that made a difference was walking outside. So, I took myself in hand and made a plan. For the next week I would:

* Work mornings only

* Sit in my favourite chair after lunch and look out of the window

* Walk for an hour every afternoon

The shift happened sooner than I imagined. After three days the flat feeling had lifted, and I felt energised and ready to serve clients again. It was a powerful reminder to give myself permission to do what I already know works.  It’s so easy to lose that perspective. And at this point in the pandemic we need to take care of ourselves.

What does that mean?


Give yourself a break

Within the working day. When you think you simply cannot rest for ten minutes is when you absolutely definitely need to have a rest for ten minutes. Implement a tea break. Look out of the window, pull up weeds, stroke the cat, walk round the block, whatever – just take a break. If you are beating yourself up for not taking a break, try listening to Kristen Neff’s five-minute Self Compassion Break.


Complete your stress cycles

In their book Burnout, Amelia and Emily Nagoski explain how incomplete stress cycles contribute to mental and physical burnout. The stress cycle is the physiological process that we go through to respond to and recover from some kind of threat. Whilst most of us are aware of the fight or flight response, we often don’t deal with the residual stress left in our bodies after the initial threat has passed. Completing our stress cycle means doing just that –discharging physiological stress so that our body and mind feel safe enough to relax again.  It’s what stops us going around in a state of alert and why some people feel the need to go for a run after a hard day. To complete your stress cycles, some kind of physical exertion is required (not easy when you are feeling tired). My choice was to walk fast uphill every afternoon, which may not appeal to everyone in a wet November, but there are other reasons why that might be a good idea.


Spend time in Nature to restore your attention

Whatever the weather, time spent in nature lifts our mood, boosts our energy and restores our scattered attention.  Nature gives our brains a rest because we don’t have to spend energy forcing ourselves to concentrate on it, explain Eva Selhub and Alan Logan, in their insightful book, Your Brain on Nature. The perfect antidote to screen fatigue, time in nature restores our ability to focus and be fully present with our clients. The effects are measurable in an MRI scanner, so don’t wait for the weekend to go outside, especially as the days get shorter.


Fire up your neural connections with a walk

If you live in the city and green space is harder to come by, getting out for a walk still brings significant benefits. Humans are hardwired to think while they are moving explains Shane O’Mara in In Praise of Walking. Not only do we relax but we also activate neural pathways that spark insights, ideas and creative inspiration. Taking a walk before and after coaching sessions is beneficial for both clients and coaches. Walking isn’t ‘taking a break from work’, it’s work of a different and profoundly valuable kind.


Prepare for winter

As the nights draw in and uncertainty rumbles on, we need to conserve our energy for what really matters. As coaches we need to nurture ourselves now so that we have the perspective, energy and presence to be there for our clients through a long winter ahead. For me, that means committing to afternoon walks before the light fades. What does it mean for you?



Why this stage of the pandemic makes us so anxious, Amy Cuddy and JillEllyn Riley, Washington Post, 11 August 2021

How to Change, Katy Milkman, Vermilion, 2021

Your Brain on Nature, Eva M Selhub and Alan C Logan, Collins 2014

In Praise of Walking, Shane O’Mara, Vintage 2020

Burnout, Emily and Amelia Nagoski, Penguin 2020

Kristen Neff’s Self Compassion Break (5 minute audio)

About the Author: Kate Tapper is an ICF ACC coach and facilitator working with clients across the higher education sector. Her work centres on how we can overcome self-doubt, collaborate courageously and build compassionate resilience together. Connect at https://www.linkedin.com/in/katetapper/ or buddevelopment.co.uk