COVID-19 Pandemic

Stories of Resilience in the Face of COVID-19

By Phil Basso    April 2020


My family extends wishes for safety and health to you and yours. In the times we’re living in, the theme of resilience in the face of adversity becomes a top-of-mind topic. But what is resilience? A few years ago, APHSA and a team of our partners developed a thorough model of resilience drivers linked to similar drivers for executive functioning and adaptive leadership. Some would prefer the definition “bouncing forward versus bouncing back.” I just heard a teen group leader describe this as “knowing that we can all come together as one community.”

Sometimes it’s best to show and not just tell about such things, especially when we’re all living the lesson, so to speak. Twice last week I witnessed the resilience of our field in action by how managers and leaders are reacting to the current crisis. Or, I should say, the way they are balancing reacting to the current crisis with reflecting on how this crisis can illuminate things about ourselves that we weren’t sure we could rely on, not only to get through this, but to grow stronger from it.

In the first instance, I was moderating, from afar, a 10-member project team within a county’s public agency—mostly middle-managers at the local level. The project leads felt it would be right-minded to start with a bit of meeting time to recognize the stress people are feeling, invite some round-the-table vetting of home-based work life, social distancing, and the hardships family and friends were experiencing. While there were some nods in that direction, the members of this team spent most of this time suggesting ways the current crisis might support better ways of operating the agency and serving people.

One member focused on the opportunity to track funding streams more holistically and creatively flex them to the community’s greatest needs. A second member connected this idea to her ideas for adapting staff deployment with the capacity to support high-demand services and supports, perhaps making such flex methods a long-term proposition. Another reminded the group of the agency’s ongoing efforts to map the customers’ journey with them, and emphasized how the current crisis would illuminate inequities by race and place in the current state. A fourth jumped in and pointed out how timely it would be to advance efforts to provide virtual kiosks to address both inequitable access and the current stay-at-home orders. And a fifth member shared how the business community would be more supportive than ever to engage in partnership discussions, as many of the agency’s customers are now going to be laid-off employees of these businesses.

Mind you, this was during the introductory, opening section of our agenda—a place for each team member to share and reveal their current stress and feelings of struggle, even despair. When asking the group to reflect on why they responded with innovative ideas, one person commented that the agency was learning it was “more resilient than we ever realized.” Another commented, “I guess we’re learning about leadership from a distance, meaning when we reach for bearings while working from home, we have them in our shared values and priorities.”

In the second instance last week, I was a participant on an all-state call organized to share experiences and interests from across these systems, attended by many within our country’s health and human services leadership. Indeed, this one-hour call established a set of focused issues for which the participants had pragmatic, often technical, questions and suggestions for one another. About halfway through the call, the group was asked what other topics and themes should be included for the next call.  One leader praised the group and suggested how helpful it would be to devote a segment of the call time to “reflections on the resilience of our staff in the face of these challenges.” Another piped in that “we’re more agile than we thought we could be.” The call resumed with a heightened focus on employee pay equity and incentives, leaders engaging with employees from afar, and novel ways of staffing for high-demand services.

Again, I simply “ran into” these stories of resilience last week. I know there are far more out there. I invite you to share similar experiences—where you have witnessed or that lead to this balance between effective near-term response and reserving the capacity to reflect, learn, and innovate. I’m confident your colleagues will appreciate your stories as much as we do at APHSA.

About the Author

Phil Basso (full bio)

Director, Organizational Effectiveness
American Public Human Services Association


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