Workplace best practice: safely managing a pandemic

Today, Abi shares her insight on managing a business during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic

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Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was established in Horsham, West Sussex in 1855. As the team across the company’s four offices – also in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint – continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, Manager Abi Pattenden shares how she has steered changes to the organisation’s working practices. With the UK’s lockdown beginning to be eased, this provides valuable insight to employers who will be managing a workforce transitioning back to face-to-face working…

When I read the Guardian article about the concerns of headteachers who are worried about how to manage a return to the workplace, I couldn’t help but feel an incredible sense of empathy, as the feelings they were outlining are ones which I recognised all-too clearly as having experienced myself several weeks ago. The specifics may be different – I don’t have to worry about the care of young children or how to manage a socially-distanced dining hall, but the weight of responsibility and duty of care I felt – to our staff, their families, our clientele, and other people we might encounter purely through operating on a day-to-day basis – was very familiar.

Even before lockdown started, it was clear that we would have to put the most straightforward level of our business continuity plan into place, meaning that I would continue to manage the business day-to-day while Mr Freeman, the owner, stayed away from the office and sought to remain free from infection. If I became ill, he could then step in. This was practical for many reasons – not least because he was abroad at the time that the outbreak started. However, this was not a decision without its implications.

There was a brief period of time at the very start of the pandemic when it was suggested that anyone who ‘receives a flu jab for health reasons’ (which includes me, as an asthma sufferer) was ‘vulnerable’ to the virus (which turned out to be true) and therefore might not be able to live life normally (this turned out later to be overly simplistic). I had a stressful week or so where I was going to work as normal but then sitting in the car while my husband went to the supermarket – this seemed wrong.

We also decided early on that I would not see any customers, apart from incidentally. My role means I am often not able to dedicate the time we need to see a funeral through from start to finish but I have always been there when needed – when we are busy, or short-staffed, or if a family asks for me – so this was a hard decision to make. I was worried the team would think I was somehow protecting myself from situations that I was happy to put them in, and so it was a relief when Mr Freeman told me that he didn’t want me to see people for business continuity purposes.

There was a strange period for a couple of weeks while we knew of the virus’ existence, and plans were being put into place for it at various local and national levels. Some of these looked unnecessary (and, frankly, still do) but some seemed workable, albeit the implications were frightening. During that couple of weeks there was very little guidance for funeral directors about how to care for a Deceased person who had been diagnosed with COVID-19, how dangerous the virus might be to us after the person had died and to what extent PPE would be necessary.

It seemed apparent from experiences overseas that, thankfully, what was then mostly being called the Coronavirus was not like Ebola, where the disease is highly communicable even after death. However, during those two weeks we were in a kind of limbo, wondering both ‘if’ and ‘when’ we would start to see the impact of this upon us. It feels like both ages ago, and very recently, that we collected our first Deceased person who was suspected of having contracted the virus – in fact it was exactly ten weeks ago at the time I write this.

Those early few weeks were a very strange time in many ways. We were dealing with a slew of changes every day – especially in the period immediately after the lockdown, when crematoria introduced a whole set of new rules (although each crematorium’s rules were – and still are – slightly different and altered at different times), and churches and cemetery chapels closed their doors to congregations. Keeping up with which rule applied where, and keeping the customers informed, quickly became impossible and we had to say that we would let our customers know as and when changes came which would affect them, but that we couldn’t keep them informed if everything was alright – it was just too much work for us to do. We have been really fortunate that most customers have been appreciative of what we have been able to do rather than being critical when we couldn’t reasonably assist them.

Additionally, the human body is not designed to be ‘on edge’ for a lengthy period of time. The ‘fight or flight’ adrenaline response leaves you exhausted when it dissipates, and it was very important to me that everyone took some opportunities to decompress. I used my journey home to reflect on the day and then tried to switch off in the evenings, which I found hard – I’m not a good person at switching off at the best of times. I have always been keen to ensure my staff know that I don’t have the same expectations of them! After a couple of weeks, one of the team found this checklist which really sums up what I was trying to do, albeit my attempts were less structural and more instinctive.

Due to the cohorting rules we have put in place, there are three of my colleagues, who I would normally see about once a week, who I haven’t seen in person for two months. I have taken to phoning our remote offices most mornings to check in and make sure everyone is ok. The reasons have changed over time – at first I was very worried about how likely it was the team might become unwell, but this has changed to wanting to check in, and make sure they know I haven’t forgotten about them. It seems strange to think that it might be a long time before several of us can sit in a small room, sharing treats someone has brought along, for a meeting about our community activities or a change to company policy. It has made me realise that I would never be able to carry out a role where I managed a team remotely. I like to sit down with people too much!

I am proud of how our team is working through this very difficult time. Quite a few of us, me included, have had tough moments. Most of us live with others (most of whom are not key workers so are staying at home). In spite of all the measures we have put in place, there are risks inherent in going to any work that there aren’t in staying at home. The unprecedented nature of the situation we are in is stressful and worrying in and of itself. This is an anxious time for everyone, even before you consider that even under normal circumstances ours is a high pressure job in which you have to absorb the emotions of others. What I have tried to do, with their support, is to be honest, to make the best decisions I can with the information I have at the time and, crucially, be open to those decisions being questioned, and changing them as soon as, and as often as, it is necessary. The situation we are in is not a time to take my own opinion or judgement any more seriously than anyone else’s – after all, we are all in the same boat.


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Written by Abi Pattenden


May 26, 2020

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