COVID-19 has cast a shadow that few of us could ever have imagined. Around the world, families are grieving, lives have been put on hold, finances are squeezed. The crisis is not yet over, but hopeful stories are emerging.

In a new series, we hear how individuals across the University community have coped with unexpected experiences, found new opportunities and are looking to the future.

As the Staff Counselling Centre re-opens its premises, post lockdown, Head of Staff Counselling Michelle Reynolds reflects on the past three months and how this experience will influence the service going forwards.

Returning from leave on the 18 March, my staff politely asked me not to enter our department in the run up to lockdown; I had just returned from a cruise-walking holiday.

Staff were busy closing down our lovely newly refurbished building and trying to establish a counselling service from their respective homes. Like so many others, we were subject to the restrictions imposed on us by our personal circumstances. How would those counsellors who had childcare responsibilities manage to work while caring for children?

A schedule was organised by our administration team, one of whom continued to work while under lockdown in New Zealand, and we set about delivering a completely different way of counselling by Zoom, Microsoft Teams and telephone.

Previously, 99% of all counselling had been face-to-face. This way of working was now no longer possible. Digital work has become our new norm, as it has been for many staff across the University.

But, for a service that has relied upon management support being accessible in person, adapting to a completely different way of working has had its challenges. No more talking with our colleagues in the coffee room, or running ideas past them. We have had to learn as we go, with training accessed where we could find it. It needed to be short and soon. We didn’t have time to sign up for a year’s course.

We've managed it. We've delivered training sessions during Mental Health Awareness week, relaxation sessions as part of the Festival of Wellbeing, and an alternative funeral memorial for colleagues who, due to lockdown restrictions, could not attend a funeral.

We have been able to support staff who are in lockdown in other countries, via Zoom or Teams, and will continue to provide counselling, going forwards, for those staff who are working abroad.

"Our weekly staff meetings are delivered via Zoom, and one member of the team organised a ‘drop in café’ to provide a supportive venue for staff to call in to swap thoughts and ideas. The level of commitment from all staff ensured that our service continued to flourish under challenging conditions."

If the entering of lockdown called for creative ideas, preparing for the easing of lockdown was a completely new challenge.

We had a cohort of clients who had no access to counselling during lockdown. It was imperative to find a way of opening up our premises, in a safe way, for both staff and clients.

The government guidelines changed each week, if not each day... 25% occupancy, social distancing, don’t use public transport... continuous discussions took place between our staff and our management team tasked with turning all the information into a working policy.

The result is that clients will be invited to enter our building, be greeted by their counsellor and accompanied to a private room, but will be seen via Zoom, the counsellor having returned to their own room. We have two courtyards that can be used while the weather permits, and our colleagues in the Botanic Garden have offered us access for ‘walk and talk’ sessions.

This way of working is, for the time being, our answer to offering a safe space for those clients who cannot access counselling in any other way. While the future seems so uncertain, we have developed a completely new set of skills that reflect the world in which we now inhabit. The Staff Counselling Centre has adapted to these changes and will continue to offer a full service to all staff of the University.

More information about how to access help available to Cambridge University staff can be found here.

Words: Michelle Reynolds
Design: Zoe Smith
Photography: Lloyd Mann
Typography: Balvir Friers
Series Editor: Louise Walsh