“Being off sick with coronavirus gave me a new perspective on work”

HR consultant Elva Ainsworth shares what it was like to be unable to work after catching the virus, and lessons for people professionals

We had been warned; the data was clear if you were able to take it in. One of our clients is based in Italy so we’d had feedback first hand on how it was going to go. Their impassioned despair and grief over their loss of liberty was shocking and sobering. It was clear what was coming and so I prepared the team by asking them to make sure they could work from home soon. I was assured they were ready, but they really weren’t.

Things were still going on pretty normally with the addition of hand washing. One of my team came up to York from London for a five-hour meeting. We arm bumped rather than hugged, rather proudly I thought. Five days later I developed a fever and a cough and he phoned me to say he had just been tested positive for Covid-19. I soon realised that he had also spent time working closely with most of my team – and those he had missed I had been with instead. 

I was starting to feel rough and I knew that, within days, all of us might be ill. No one we knew had had this bug, but we knew it could be bad. How could we make sure everyone was OK and clients got what they needed too? How could we create urgency without causing panic and anxiety? And how could we make sure nothing important got forgotten?

Soon these questions were overshadowed by a haze of fever and breathlessness. I had a nasty case of pneumonia through the winter a couple of years ago, which has left me with dysfunctional breathing – I was always likely to be more susceptible than most. 

I made sure my number two knew she was in charge and should focus on the safety and wellbeing of every team member. My husband was in charge of our teenage boys who had both developed a fever too. We were now in a 14-day family quarantine.

The team members who struggled with control and anxiety were suffering. They were worrying about delivering client projects and not getting home. I let them be and quietly phoned those more resilient and asked them to lock all our computers in the cupboard before they closed the office.

Now I was getting worse: the fever and my breathing becoming difficult. I couldn’t help anyone – they needed to manage everything for me, even though I had been running the business for 20 years. There was the pain of things not being handled at first, but then people started to shift. My number two sat more firmly behind her laptop screen and made sure everything was sorted and everyone was OK. 

Through my less feverish moments, I noticed that the sounds of the road outside were different than they used to be: quieter generally but louder talking, a bit stressed but more deliberate. Food parcels arrived on our doorstep. Lots of people from the past and from around the world connected. Our family started regularly using WhatsApp and FaceTime.

Things are never going to be the same again. I am in the business of 360 feedback because I love the dramatic impact of suddenly seeing your world differently, of getting a detailed view of yourself from a new perspective. People feel challenged, upset and resist the pain of accepting new information. But when they feel safe and able to turn towards this new view, they can start to process it properly.

It’s tough, it’s not comfortable and not of our asking, but it can be seen as a blessing. Perhaps now we can create fresh new ways of managing ourselves, our work, our food, our money and our health. I am genuinely excited that we can do this as a family, a team and a country. 

Elva Ainsworth is CEO of Talent Innovations