During a virtual team meeting at the end of March mention was made of a list of useful tasks that the Knowledge and Library Services team could work on to support COVID-19 efforts within PHE and with external partners. Knowing that, as the Knowledge and Evidence Specialist for Health Improvement my workload was likely to be quieter for a time*, I followed up after the meeting. “We have just the job in mind for you” is always a scary phase because it generally refers to a terrible task that no-one else wants to do. The conversation continued “We know you miss managing people, so you get to do that and use your organisational, tact and diplomacy skills as well”.**
Evidence Aid, a charity, needed someone to co-ordinate a team of volunteer literature searchers for their COVID-19 collection of systematic review summaries and had asked their contacts at PHE for help. I was offered to Evidence Aid on a part-time basis (2-3 hours per day) from 1st April – 31st May to support them with Phase 1 of the project.
Literature Search Co-Ordination – During an initial chat with Evidence Aid it became apparent that as well as co-ordinating the searchers, they needed someone to recruit new searchers and set up the workflows and processes. I did that within a couple of days. To explain, Evidence Aid has a core COVID-19 search that runs every day looking for new systematic reviews, but they wanted volunteers to perform literature searches on related topics of interest as well. I am extremely concerned about using library workers as volunteers. I did an Evidence Aid mini episode of the podcast and approached established groups for health library workers with a very clear message of “Please don’t feel obliged to consider doing this work if you can’t/don’t want to, focus on looking after yourselves and your loved ones”. PHE have kindly allowed me to ‘borrow’ a couple of my colleagues to do searches, and a few other people answered my call for help. (FWIW the searchers either have jobs in which they are already doing COVID-related work, have been redeployed and want to keep their hand in with searching, or want to develop new skills while they’re working at home.)
I’ve developed a small cohort of keen, committed searchers and I keep a careful eye on them. They are asked to consider whether they want to take on a search, not to worry if they can’t, and to take care of themselves. I also ensure that they have realistic deadlines to work to and that these can be changed as/when necessary.
Summary Writing Co-Ordination – Once the searching end of the process was set up and running smoothly, it became obvious that someone was needed to co-ordinate the other end of the process, the summary writers, as well. Once suitable systematic reviews are identified via searches, they are prioritised for summarising (the bar for inclusion is high and many COVID-related SRs aren’t up to scratch so are rejected early on), allocated to summarisers, edited by a small team, and added to the website.
Initially the summaries were written by two people and finalised by someone else, but this model of working was unsustainable. Evidence Aid put a call-out on the Cochrane Task Exchange and academics and students from all over the world offered their services as summary writers. Initially they were co-ordinated by the two original summary writers, but their workloads were huge and one of them was studying for exams, so I took over.
When I started there was a lot of confusion about who was working on a summary, who wasn’t, what stage a summary was at, whether it was a duplicate, who was editing summaries, and liaising with the summarisers. I created the workflows and processes so that a summary could be tracked from when it was prioritised for inclusion to when it was added to the portal. I’m the initial point of contact for the summarisers and keep a careful eye on their workloads. Draft summaries are sent to two people (a student and a health specialist) to edit, go to an academic for finalising, and are given the final go-ahead by another academic before being added to the website.
This means that I’m now co-ordinating the work of c.60 people across the project.
Managing my time – I’m balancing the Evidence Aid work with my PHE work. When the project was in its infancy my inbox was overwhelming and I spent most of my time dealing with email traffic and fighting fires. Two months on things have settled down, there have been some personnel changes, and I have far less traffic to manage. I have clear boundaries. If I have PHE work to do, I’ll turn off my emails for a couple of hours so that I can focus. I won’t work late unless I need to finish something urgent off, and I absolutely will not work weekends.
Feedback – I’m the main point of contact for the volunteers and I want to make them feel welcome and valued. If they say they will get a piece of work done by a certain date and don’t manage it, I’ll follow-up to gently ask if they’re ok. An awful lot can happen in someone’s life in a short space of time and piling in on them for not doing something they’ve volunteered for is never appropriate. I emphasise that they must look after themselves and thank them for their work. The relationship-building aspect of the work is key, as is the need for kind and constructive feedback. English is not necessarily the first (or second) language of the summary writers so I need to be mindful of how I phrase emails e.g. not using colloquial or confusing language. I don’t always get it right, though, and I’m learning all the time.
Emotional toll – I’m incredibly lucky and haven’t been personally affected – yet – by COVID. Managing emails from 60 volunteers, plus those from the Evidence Aid team, being part of team calls across two organisations, updating the workflows, advising on the project, doing my PHE work, managing my own wellbeing, parenting, supervising home schooling and trying to get through life in lockdown is far from easy though. There are days when the last thing I want to do is work. I have imposed a routine on myself on weekdays to prevent the gloom from descending too severely.
Next steps – In May Evidence Aid received funding for Phase 2 of the COVID-19 project and asked if I would like to carry on working with them. It’s been agreed that my part-time secondment will carry on until the end of October and I’ll juggle my PHE work alongside. My original job title was Searching Co-Ordinator. In early April I became the Searching and Summary Writing Co-Ordinator. I’m now the COVID-19 Project Co-Ordinator.
Final thoughts – It’s no secret that I’ve been through a tough time professionally in the last year. In an ideal world I would be doing my PHE role full-time, a job that I was just starting to get good at before lockdown started, and we wouldn’t be coping with a global pandemic. However, we can only operate in the situation in which we find ourselves. I’m enormously privileged that despite the challenges outlined, I can do my PHE and Evidence Aid work from home, and that everyone I love is ok. I appreciate the opportunity that I have been given and I’m determined not to waste it.
It’s not appropriate to do so now, but perhaps in a few months’ time I’ll be able to sit down and selfishly, cynically, write a list of the ways that this secondment will benefit my career prospects and how I can use my new and enhanced skills in the future. For now, my stance is that if my work makes the lives of my colleagues and peers easier, that is enough.
*The HI work quietened down for a time as everyone shifted to new ways of working and/or was asked to do COVID-related work but picked up again from late April. I’m now at the point where I get a lot of repeat business from happy customers who like my literature searching and with whom I have built relationships so I’m keen to keep working with them.
**I would describe my skills in these areas as a ‘work in progress’ but perhaps my management team views me a little differently to how I view myself.