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Fingal Independent

Coaching on the frontline

Fiona Dowling from Portmarnock talks to Ken Phelan about how she's been coaching frontline workers to help them cope through the Covid crisis


Fiona Dowling. Photo: Fintan Clarke

Fiona Dowling. Photo: Fintan Clarke

Fiona Dowling. Photo: Fintan Clarke

With COVID-19 continuing to hold a grip on the country, a Portmarnock professional career and business coach speaks to The Fingal Independent of a nationwide initiative set up to support frontline workers through the strain of the ongoing pandemic.

Fiona Dowling works as a volunteer with 'Connect A Coach', a coaching service set up last March to support the mental health and well-being of our frontline workers who have been working tirelessly over the past few months in the fight against COVID-19.

The service links frontline workers to a panel of professional coaches who allow them to discuss in a safe and confidential setting their frustrations and concerns in relation to work, where previously there had been no such avenue.

Connect A Coach's panel of professional coaches are volunteering their time and skills for the service in recognition of the incredible work frontline workers are carrying out, in an effort to lessen the burden of working at the coalface of COVID-19.

The initiative involves a number of accredited bodies in the coaching profession who have reached out to their coaches for involvement in the service, which has gained a huge response nationwide.

Fiona, who runs her own coaching practice, ClearThoughts in Malahide, explains: 'Connect A Coach' was an initiative set up by two ladies, Ailbhe Harrington and Karen Hayes. They founded it literally in response to Ireland's call there in March, and through the coaching community in Ireland they would have gone through accredited bodies and sought volunteers from the coaching community. They would have got a lot, and they put together a panel of coaches that would have been calibre professionals that were recognised and were happy to volunteer their services. It was set up in about eight days with everybody really pulling together to turn this into an offering for all of these people.

'The service is free coaching for all frontlines, anyone on the frontline offering care and safety. Coaching is different to counselling, so it isn't counselling. What coaching is is to give people a safe place to pause, reflect and process what's been going on, maybe discuss the kind of challenges and to try and find a way forward. So that's kind of what coaching is.'

She says: 'From a fontline's perspective we're very conscious of the fact that they've been working flat-out, they've had a lot of issues to deal with, they've had no PPE, they've had to isolate from their family, they've had to work very, very long hours and they've been juggling a lot of personal fears with work commitments and family fears, and then they may have seen a lot of stuff that they may not have been used to seeing as regularly. They've had to deal with an awful lot.

'The frontline kind of extends beyond obviously doctors and nurses, you also have the people behind the scenes that have been facilitating the provision of the services.

'You have first responders, nursing home providers, people providing care, care home providers, pharmacists, funeral home directors and clergy. You have a lot of people that are in that care space and safe space, the hospital cleaners, catering staff, so many people that have been taking care of all of us really.'

Fiona explains that frontline workers who are interested in joining the Connect A Coach service simply select from a panel of coaches on the Connect A Coach website before beginning one of four free sessions.

Service users can avail of coaching from a range of media, such as phone, Zoom, FaceTime, Whatsapp - whatever they feel most comfortable with, though no face-to-face sessions are being offered at the moment.

According to Fiona, while counselling involves looking into the past, coaching helps someone to 'facilitate their thinking to actually be able to move forward.' It could be, she says, that someone simply feels overwhelmed with their role as a frontline worker, and from dealing with the many challenges that have been thrown at them.

In their particular profession, Fiona says, frontline workers may have been operating in 'crisis mode' for the past few months, with concerns about a lack of PPE or worries for their own safety or the safety of their families.

These concerns, she points out, all have to be balanced with carrying out their day-to-day work as a frontline worker.

Fiona says: 'What happens in the session will be very much what the frontline worker might present. They just might want to have a chat about everything they've been going through and it gives them a space to reflect on where they're at right now and how they may move forward.

'They may present with a range of things, they're probably very very tired and they might be disillusioned with their work, they may just want to chat about how they might move forward or maintain their energy levels going forward, it could be a range of things.

'The service has been available since March, so what can happen is now they're probably moving into a second stage now and they're probably exhausted. They're maybe not feeling as energised as they would be normally, they're probably going 'oh my gosh, what has just happened?'

'They maybe are not feeling just brilliant about themselves and they're trying to work out about how to move forward. If somebody has a space just to reflect and process what has happened and talk about it, sometimes it can actually help to give them a little bit of clarity with all the wonderful stuff they've done or how they actually managed to mind themselves.

'They might realise they have actually kept their families safe and how they are really doing great work and they might just say, 'do you know what?, I really do love what I do', and maybe think about how they could bring a bit more balance into their day, into their lives, or just move forward with their career. Or indeed, they may say 'do you know what? I need a little time out.'

Fiona says that, in the event that a service user's needs fall outside the realm of coaching, referrals to other services are also offered: 'One of the caveats when you get coaching is, it is a confidential safe space but there's always a caveat that in the event that we feel that really we're not the right people to deal with this and in fact they might need a little extra help, we've all been trained in psychological first aid as coaches, and we have the employee assistance scheme contacts if they're with the HSE.

'We also have a number of other contacts where there are free psychological supports for all of the rest of the frontline workers out there as well.

'We have access to that, so in our professional judgement, if we feel that we're not actually able to help them move on, or in the event that we felt there was an issue of harm, then that there's a caveat in the confidential thing, which you would be upfront with them about.'

Frontline workers are facing many challenges in their work, Fiona says, so that 'Connect A Coach' offers a space for reflection and to 'get some thoughts off their chest': 'People say 'a problem shared, a problem halved', but they're working in the environment where they're caring and have been caring in crisis mode for so long, and then they've been trying to mind their families on one side, they've probably been juggling issues and if you think of the children that have been at home and all the challenges.

'There's a lot of challenges that have been thrown at these people and they had to keep going. It's just giving them a little space where they can just reflect on all the good work that has been done.

' I think if you hear somebody and if you actually listen to them and hear them and they know they're being heard, I think that alone helps them to get some thoughts off their chest, and just to be able to get some clarity of thought, process it and move forward.'

.Frontline workers interested in joining 'Connect A Coach' can contact the service at The service operates seven days a week from 7am to 9pm.

Fingal Independent