Rehabilitation, Recovery and Healing

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched everything in ways great and small. The mindset we bring to see, feel, and sense will shape how we live with all that is and what might come. In this article, we look at the psychology and strategy of planned healing, rehabilitation, and recovery.

Another ‘pandemic winter‘ has brought further complexity to our understanding of the world, ourselves, and what’s to come. With each phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, things get progressively messier. I don’t need to tell you that. Look around and you’ll find just about everyone appears tired, upset, worried, angry or some combination.

What happens next is where developing a post-pandemic strategy comes in. Strategy is not just about the business of our work, but the means by which we shape ourselves in light of our work. Work in this case is not just about jobs, roles, and functions, but the effort and focus on the worker — ourselves, our coworkers, our loved ones, and communities.

Framing Strategy as Rehabilitation

David Rock, writing in the Harvard Business Review, argues that we need time to rehabilitate from the pandemic. Drawing on neurobiological analogies, Rock argues we’ve gone through the same patterns of shock and pain coupled with prolonged psychological uncertainty. Together, this mirrors what we see in trauma to the brain and body. And like that trauma, we must continue to move, rest, and give space and time to recover and rehabilitate.

Rehabilitation, however, is the most painful stage of the process. The shock and impact of the pandemic hurt, but our natural reactions to survive have kept us in that resilience pattern that many researchers, consultants, and journalists have explored.

As any rehabilitation practitioner will tell you: the path to health is slow, steady, and (often) frustrating. As Rock remarks, rehabilitation is about rebuilding, repair, and regrowth. If you’ve ever been through clinical rehab of any sorts you know the challenges that it brings.

Rock argues by taking this rehabilitation approach we can promote healing better than if we simply wish our way forward. Rehabilitation provides a frame and a real parallel to follow. He suggests three points to keep in mind:

  1. Don’t move too fast.
  2. Value progress.
  3. Remember we’re all walking wounded.

If we are to develop a strategy that considers rehabilitation as a part, what might it look like if we are to take this approach seriously?

Movement and Speed

When I was a small child I broke my arm in multiple places and dislocated my elbow. Over three years I had three different surgeries that involved plenty of rehabilitation. In 2020, I had surgery on the same elbow due to complications from that injury almost 45 years later. What was the same was time in a cast, but the rehabilitation approach was vastly different. When I was a child, the dominant approach to let your injury rest and then do rehabilitation. Now, rehab begins almost immediately. Recent research across a variety of conditions has shown that early movement aids rehabilitation.

Heal through movement.

What this means is that we start visioning our next stage and begin building that strategy now. We start healing while we are still wounded. However, it also means that the pace of change, the intensity of energy devoted to moving forward, and the expectations we attach to both must calibrate. This calibration involves us moving slowly and keeping steady. Persistence beats high intensity.

We need to set our expectations for timing accordingly.

Monitoring Progress

Rapid change is what evaluators love to see because it’s easier to measure. Slow, progressive change is more difficult. Slow change is more difficult because the feedback is less obvious day-to-day and week-to-week. Evaluation is what we do when we seek to assess what is happening and what kind of influence our actions are having. Good rehabilitation evaluation helps us see what we are doing and measures progress.

This means we need a vision for where we want to go next, a strategy that allows us to go from here to there, and an evaluation and monitoring system in place to measure where we start (we are now) and where we are going. As setbacks come — and they will come — we’ll be able to avoid confusing bumps in the road for real barriers.

Compassionate Healing

The last point is about remembering that we are all walking wounded. We know that the pandemic has affected us all simply by virtue of its systemic nature. These effects have been varied, inconsistent, persistent, and unevenly distributed in time, space, and circumstance. This is the ultimate complex system. And just as the term implies, many of us are wounded but still able to move. The term comes from combat and disaster medicine when there’s a need to distinguish those of various states of need.

Most of the wounds we face from the pandemic are hidden. Mental health, cultural health, and social wellbeing are all difficult to readily assess. We can go through the motions of returning to workplaces, engaging in cultural activities, and re-engaging with humans in person, but that doesn’t mean we’re the same as before.

Rehabilitation is not about returning to normal, it’s about regaining functioning within an environment. With the pandemic, it’s critical we remember that the environment has changed. Our designs for work, ourselves, and our organizations must recognize it’s not a return to normal, but that normal is no longer what it was. The people and settings are different and that requires compassion.

It also means we take strategic design approaches that recognize that things are dynamic, moving, and still unstable. We must design for movement, not stability and stasis. That’s what a rehabilitation framing can do. This is healing by design.

If we are to go from the metaphorical winter to spring our mindset requires a new approach to strategy. It’s not about foresight and ‘build back better’ or ‘new normal’ thinking, but taking lessons from nature that it takes time, care, and attention to heal.

Trees don’t rush to heal — neither should we. They, hopefully like us, are here for the long term.

If your organization struggles with post-pandemic planning know that you’re not alone. This is a challenge for our generation. I’ve been working with organizations in taking this complexity-oriented, design-driven approach to strategy, evaluation and healing. If you want help with your work, reach out and let’s talk over coffee.

Photos by Gordana Bukumiric on Unsplash

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Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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