In Mindcast

Ravi Rana – Managing COVID-19 Information Overload

Ravi Rana is a Clinical Psychologist and Director of Therapies at East London NHS Foundation Trust. In this podcast she talks about the wealth of information created in response to COVID-19 for the general public and health and social care professionals, and that while helpful, there is a danger of becoming overwhelmed and indifferent to new information and feel deskilled and incompetent. Many already have the skills needed to deal with the challenges of the pandemic, with communication and comradery with friends and colleagues helping the effective mobilisation of resources. 

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Nowadays we have access to information and the ability to share that information on a scale that is truly amazing. We have fantastic opportunities for learning, and sharing what we are learning during this pandemic and many of us have already felt the benefits of this.

But this epidemic is beyond the experience of most of us, and I think it’s not unfair to say that anxiety, if not the virus itself, has infected most of us. Many of us feel out of our depth and in unknown territory, very quickly we can begin to feel unconfident and as if we have no skills to deal with what’s in front of us.

So we look for more information to steady ourselves, regain our balance and get some understanding of this new situation and challenges. This is a normal and adaptive response to discover everything we possibly can to give us an advantage, to get ahead of the threat at our backs.

We look for direction and to what we should we do under these new conditions.

And there can be an immediate sense of relief when new information comes in. It feels reassuring that someone out there knows what’s going on, like someone is in charge, and that someone has an answer that will relieve us of all this uncertainty.

But while there is reassurance in knowing that people are thinking about this, and even better, thinking about this collectively, there is another side to this burgeoning wealth of information. And I want to talk a little about that, and the potential indigestion and indifference that many of us are beginning to experience in the wake of the information explosion in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As this crisis unfolds more and more information floods in, there are helpful fact sheets about just about every aspect of our lives – how to eat and sleep, what sort of exercise to do in our confined spaces, how to socialise, how to work, how to communicate with one another and even what to do about our pets. There’s no area of our lives that hasn’t been thought about by someone out there and deemed worthy of a COVID makeover.

For professionals in particular, there is even more ‘help’, our professional bodies and colleagues have swung into action and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such proliferation and sharing of helpful information, all of which feels compelling but also, if I’m honest, exhausting.

All this information is becoming overwhelming. There is a limit to what we can take in and there is a danger that in protecting ourselves from overload we can become indifferent to all new information, including stuff we really need to know …

I have colleagues whose views I respect and value … they send me reams of ‘helpful’ links they’ve found. I can see that a lot of it is the same content, sometimes repackaged in a more user friendly way, and it has stopped feeling quite so helpful or even friendly to me, and now I am starting to feel a bit hounded by all this stuff.

But it’s difficult to just turn off the information flow. It feels important somehow to keep up and who knows, there might a golden nugget out there that is going to make all the difference. And even though most of us know there isn’t, the pressure is there to keep looking for something more, something new, to stem the anxiety we feel and to help us feel less powerless.

One of the more unhelpful sides of this information overload is that the skills we thought we had somehow don’t feel good enough anymore. We can begin to feel inadequate to the task in hand and to lose our grip on the competencies we took for granted before the pandemic. In my organisation, for example, as in many others, a huge source of anxiety has been the lack of adequate protective equipment. There has also been a lot of confusion about how to use it. Our leadership responded positively by managing to get the equipment that was needed and by issuing guidance about usage. But staff continued to feel confused about how to use it despite our organisation’s clear guidance. Here I think anxiety was fuelled by exposure to an unhelpful slew of confusing external information and this led to staff feeling deskilled and less competent. This got in the way of their being able to understand and follow local instructions which they would normally have had little difficulty with. The problem here was not the information we were giving staff, rather it was about containing anxiety stimulated by multiple inconsistent information feeds, and that needs a different kind of response.

The point I’m making here is that while information is vital, so is context, and what is helpful in one situation may not be in the next. In my organisation, the guidance about protective equipment was not the problem, it was how it was communicated. After a couple of goes at reissuing the guidance, our leadership took a different tack and decided to write personally to each staff member about how to use the equipment. This personal level of communication helped to contain staff anxiety and it made it easier for staff to recover their usual level of competence and take in the provided guidance.

In amidst this information snowstorm it’s important to remember that most of us already have within ourselves much of what we need to deal with the challenges of this pandemic through our trainings or in our personal tool kits. And what we actually mostly need is the support of our friends and colleagues, space to talk and share our experiences, learn from and lean on each other. This camaraderie is what will help up tolerate and manage the huge uncertainties facing us and allow us all to mobilise our resources effectively … remember … it is good to talk!