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COVID-19: Leadership, learning and looking for the silver linings

By Rozalyn Werner-Arcé, CAE

I will be the first to admit that I did not fully understand the impact that the coronavirus in Wuhan, China would have in Canada. After all, wasn’t the seasonal flu more deadly? Maybe it was only bad if you were on a cruise ship. As news reports rolled in, the tension started to rise. Therapeutic Recreation Ontario (TRO) continued to plan our spring events, but my intuition was telling me they weren’t going to happen. On March 11, 2020, I was in Toronto for a government stakeholder meeting. My runny nose had me explaining it was just allergies, that I felt just fine. We all laughed nervously. It was the strangest feeling.

On March 12, the provincial government extended March Break by two weeks. This was the signal that told us it was serious. And then it happened. On March 17, the Government of Ontario declared a state of emergency. Almost daily, all levels of government were making the most astounding announcements. Within a few short weeks, the entire country was shut down. Never in my lifetime did I imagine that would happen. It certainly was not in my risk management plan.

After a quick review of our annual plan, it became clear that our events scheduled for the next few months would be sidelined:
• TR Awareness Day at Queen’s Park was cancelled.
• April 24 workshop was cancelled.
• TRO’s annual conference was scheduled for June 24-26 at the Nottawasaga Resort and Conference Centre, only three months away. The provincial state of emergency kept being extended by a couple of weeks at a time, never long enough for us to say with confidence that it was time to postpone the event. The uncertainty kept us in a holding pattern for what felt like

TRO is a small association with little in reserves. The revenue from our education workshops and conference is extremely important to our association. If the venue held us to the contract, it would force us into bankruptcy. This is the kind of issue that keeps an executive director up at night.

That’s when everything I had ever learned along the way to becoming an association executive kicked in. TRO is a professional association representing more than 1,800 members, including practitioners, educators and students. We had an opportunity to lead the way and support our members. Indeed, this was the opportunity for TRO to rise to the challenge.

A mission-focused business continuity plan started to take shape. We knew it was important to engage members, to let them know they were not alone and that we were here to support them. On March 31, we launched our first TR Talk Tuesday, which was modelled on CSAE’s Talk Tuesday events. We were clear that we wanted to keep the discussion positive and so we were prepared with four facilitative discussion questions:

  1. What programs or service delivery ideas have been developed in response to COVID-19 at your workplace?
  2. Do you have any problems or challenges that you would like to bring forward to discuss with the group?
  3. Have there been any pleasant surprises through all of this change?
  4. What are people doing for their own self-care and well-being?

Although slow to get started, it took just one person to start talking and then the floodgates opened. The sharing of experiences was inspirational. I could not help but be impressed by the positivity, flexibility and resilience of our members, especially those working in long-term care homes. We recorded every call, made them available on the website and transcribed notes, which were shared with the entire membership. We held TR Talk Tuesday events for members who were working in different sectors: some Tuesdays we even had two calls! From the start, we decided to open up our TR Talk Tuesday calls to non-members, so that they could experience the benefits of belonging to a professional association.

Going virtual was a new way of working for recreation therapists who typically meet with their patients/residents/clients face-to-face to do assessments and implement treatment plans. We knew our members were going to need access to resources, so TRO created an online library of resources for its members. We invited members to share resources, we learned of helpful tips and tools through our TR Talk Tuesday events, and soon our partners and stakeholder allies started forwarding information too! The library has grown into a valuable resource. Again, we saw value in making it available on the public side of the website so, non-members could benefit as well.

Throughout this pandemic, we have looked for the silver linings – after all, something good needs to come out of all the horribleness. One of the biggest challenges of the therapeutic recreation profession is that it is one of the most misunderstood health care professions. So we created infographics, such as “fun, meaningful things to do while at home during COVID-19” that were directed at the public and promoted on social media. Soon, our provincial counterparts were picking them up and sharing them across the country.

COVID-19 has enabled us to focus on three of our four strategic priority areas (member engagement, communication and advocacy) in unexpected ways.

As most of our members work in health care, few have lost their jobs, but we knew that for some, their household income could be reduced. In anticipation, we adopted new processes to inform members that if they needed to defer payment or institute a payment plan, we were here to help them. Fortunately, our membership renewal has remained reasonably steady so far.

Our largest pool of prospective professional members is in our student members. When student placements were cancelled by the 11 post secondary schools offering a diploma, degree and postgraduate certificate in recreation therapy, students were at risk of not graduating and not being eligible to become registered with TRO upon graduation. This called for TRO to be flexible and adaptable. We wanted to be supportive and responsive to students, yet at the same time, we didn’t want to impact the integrity of the voluntary designation. Working with our education partners, we managed to find a reasonable compromise.

We have also extended the timelines of our student transition discount program. In a typical year, we offer a 50 per cent discount off a professional membership to graduating students that expires August 31. Knowing that many students wouldn’t complete their placement until late fall of 2020, we are extending the transition discount to December 2020.

Overall, communication with our members has increased significantly. Up until the COVID-19 crisis, we communicated with our members via our enewsletter every two weeks and through our social media channels. For some members, even that was too often. Now, in an effort to keep them informed of our initiatives, we often communicate with them twice a week – and not one member has complained to date.

In hindsight, it was fortunate our Queen’s Park event was cancelled. What we would have said and done in March was much different than what our messaging and delivery will be in September, starting with pandemic pay.

Though well-intentioned, the provincial government’s implementation was not well-considered. Recreation therapists work across many areas of practice including long-term care and retirement homes, hospitals, rehabilitation, mental health and addictions, and disabilities, in both facilities and community-based programs. They are vital staff in long-term care facilities; they ensure that residents live a life with meaning and purpose. Many have worked under very difficult conditions including working in COVID-19 units and wearing personal protective equipment. Except for those who work in long-term care, they were not included in the list of those eligible for pandemic pay. Our members were in an uproar, and rightfully so. They felt unrecognized and undervalued by the provincial government. TRO immediately launched an advocacy campaign. To support and empower our members, we created a template letter for members to write their own member of provincial parliament and tell their story. In addition to our own efforts, we reached out to allies and asked for their support too. Our hard work was rewarded weeks later when a second list of occupations eligible for pandemic pay was released that included our members.

At the time of writing, we are about to launch another campaign advocating for additional resources in long-term care homes to help manage the family visits that were announced in Phase One of the province’s re-opening. While the visits are good news for many residents and families, they are increased work for staff coordinating them, in addition to continuing with their regular programming responsibilities including virtual visits. In one home, they are tasked with coordinating 400 family visits!

As far as our conference goes, the Nottawasaga Resort has been a great partner and has worked with us to make alternative arrangements. We are now in the midst of moving our in-person spring conference to an online fall conference. We’ve attended every webinar and read every article on virtual meetings. We’ve sought advice from colleagues on Associations Connect and gleaned as much information as we possibly can from all sources. Like everyone else, we are charting new ground, making the best decisions possible based on what we know in the moment. While it has been a huge amount of work, the silver lining is that we will be well positioned if we are forced to have an online conference in 2021.

We have weeded our way through out-of-date by-laws and archaic legislation and learned how to host our first virtual annual general meeting on June 24, which included the launch of our first virtual annual report! I’m so grateful to all my CSAE colleagues who shared their best advice and learnings to help us get this far.

I’m very proud of how our small, yet mighty, team rose to the challenges. The board and staff have provided effective leadership to our members, been responsive to their needs, and demonstrated adaptability and resilience. Yet, for all of the advocacy, tools and resources, the most impactful thing we did was publicly recognize our members. A thank you to recreation therapists posted on all our social media channels has garnered the most response ever. Members were touched and hugely appreciated being thanked, as evidenced by comments such as, “Really. In my 19 years I have never seen us recognized. Sweet.” Never underestimate the power of recognition.

Until there is a vaccine, we must all learn to live with new degrees of uncertainty. On the bright side, COVID-19 has shone a light on new capacities that many of us did not know we had. We have risen to the challenge and discovered new skills and strengths. Now is the time for all of us to lead our members, reflect on our learnings and make the most of the silver linings. 

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