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The power of staying positive during COVID-19

by Sean Meyer, Municipal World
in Communication, Health, Public Participation
April, 2020

Is it time to hire a Chief Positivity Officer?

Even on a typical day – and yes, life right now is anything but typical – Newmarket Mayor John Taylor feels like he is under pressure whenever he checks his inbox. Part of Taylor’s job as mayor is to anticipate the needs of his residents, address their concerns, and find solutions to a litany of problems from the town’s financial stability to his community’s quality of life.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of that role has increased exponentially. Taylor and his municipal staff have had to quickly turn their attention to the financial impact social distancing has had on everyone in their Southern Ontario town of some 85,000 people.

However, as he started looking forward, it dawned on him these are the early days of the pandemic and the worst is undoubtedly yet to come.

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“I started looking out three weeks and I could really see people’s nerves getting frayed a little, a little less patient, and stress setting in with the isolation, the financial impact, etc.,” Taylor said. “I think we need to be proactive in trying to build some community resiliency, to try and address what I call the collective mental health of the community.”

Town of Newmarket Takes Proactive Approach

Certainly, people’s mental health challenges – whether existing or emerging – need to be dealt with by professionals, Taylor said. Even so, he also saw there could be a role for the municipality to try and build up the spirits of the community – some team morale if you will.

With that in mind, the mayor quickly put a pair of plans into action. First, he appointed the municipality’s first Chief Positivity Officer, largely to help balance the internal mental health of the town’s staff team. Second, he reached out to residents and appointed 10 inaugural Community Positivity Ambassadors (CPAs).

“The idea there is to ask people to spread stories of inspiration, of positivity,” Taylor said. “We need to be vigilant, to do our part to shorten the impact, to slow the spread; but, in the midst of that, I think there are things we can do to make people smile, to help them feel more optimistic. I’m hoping this effort will play that role in our community.”

Naming a Chief Positivity Officer

Taylor explained he had an easy choice when it came to the Chief Positivity Officer. He reached out to Jamie Boyle, the town’s Supervisor of Customer Service, to fill the role.

Describing Boyle as “constantly full of energy, positive energy, and fun,” Taylor praised him for his personal mission of helping people stay positive and enjoy the workplace.

That said, the mayor also cautioned Boyle that he wanted him to take the role seriously over the next month or two. While it might seem strange to say he wanted the role of Chief Positivity Officer taken seriously, Taylor added he wanted him to think strategically, form a team, think about a strategy that can be rolled out over the weeks to both keep the Newmarket team strong, but to also take a role in the community-wide effort as well.

For his part, and although he admits he is still getting used to the new title, Boyle said he couldn’t be prouder to have been entrusted with a role he believes will be important in helping both staff and the wider community get through the pandemic.

“With COVID-19, all the news and information that is out there, it goes without saying there is a lot of angst, there is a lot of anxiety around it. Newmarket is not alone in this, and this is where I commend the mayor,” Boyle said. “He certainly sees there are some frazzled people, people who are looking for that light at the end of the tunnel, or a little sunlight through the clouds. I am a positive person; I always have been. I would have been a fan of the role whether or not I was appointed.”

A Hunger for Positive Messages

The importance of this role, Boyle explained, really comes down to the fact people are looking for someone to bring them a bit of light, of positivity – not just in their community, but in their lives. A lot of people are shut up in their houses and the only information they are getting, unfortunately, is not always the happiest.

Boyle is also quick to add he isn’t only the Chief Positivity Officer for the Town of Newmarket, and its 400-plus staff, but he will also work with the 10 CPAs whose role is essentially the same thing across the wider community.

“I’m just one cog in a wheel that is moving toward creating a sense of community. That is the driving factor for me,” he said. “There is power in numbers, that ability for us to get through this together, not as individuals. It really is about standing apart, together.”

Boyle’s perspective is certainly reflected in similar initiatives in many communities. Everyone, he said, has been on Facebook and seen “a little joke here, a little meme there” about COVID-19 and it makes people feel good.

In Newmarket, social media will be playing a key part in how Boyle and the CPAs interact with the community. It also speaks to the thirst the wider Newmarket community has for a little positivity given how the town’s Facebook group – Stand Apart Together: The Power of Community – saw more than 250 people sign in less than 48 hours.

“The message for me getting it out there is to share the message it is okay to smile or laugh at it a little bit. It is okay to say you are not okay,” Boyle said. “I think each town wants that; they see the value of positivity. This is massive for our community and there isn’t a person affected by COVID-19 who wouldn’t see the value in that.”

Other Efforts from Communities across Canada

And, Newmarket isn’t alone in its efforts to bolster community spirits during a time of crisis. The Municipality of Clarington announced the #SpreadLove social media campaign in the face of COVID-19. The initiative asks all residents to share through social media any acts of kindness they are involved with, along with how they are reaching out to their community, while maintaining social distancing.

In a video posted to the City of Medicine Hat’s YouTube page, Mayor Ted Clugston has asked schoolkids to draw or paint their favourite part of the city. Clugston then wants parents to submit a photo of it through the city’s Facebook page.

In Victoria, with the growing season on the horizon, Canada’s “City of Gardens” is working to increase local food security amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Victoria council has decided to temporarily reassign some parks department staff to help expand an urban food production program – growing 50,000 to 75,000 seedlings to give to residents this spring.

Across the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, making the neighbourhoods brighter for those going for walks is one way that communities are coming together. Windows in one subdivision have been decorated with pictures of things like flowers, rainbows, and Easter eggs as part of an Eye Spy adventure walk for neighbourhood children.

In the Alberta town of High River, a parade float encouraging residents to stay strong was brought out by the town and parked on a downtown street as a way of boosting local morale. Similarly, the Town of Niverville, Manitoba, saw fire and emergency medical service crews hold a parade of flashing lights and blaring sirens used to cheer up local children.

Positivity about Future

Given his impetus for launching Newmarket’s initiative, Taylor also applauded other communities for their positivity efforts. People are making these efforts, he explained, because they want to help their communities be strong, but also because they are already recognizing how difficult this situation is.

Whether it is a formal effort through a municipality, or just the efforts of individual Canadians to share messages of positivity, the mayor said it is understandable why people would be looking for glimmers of hope through the pandemic.

“It tells me we have an incredibly strong community, and country, that people want to support. I’m getting inundated with people saying I want to help,” Taylor said. “It makes me feel very, very positive about how we’ll weather this storm.”  MW

✯ Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in Linda Pickard’s What really motivates employees? Note that you can now access the complete collection of past articles (and more) from your membership dashboard.

Sean Meyer is Senior Content Editor for Municipal World. During his 25-year career in journalism, Sean has covered municipal politics in several small- and medium-sized communities.

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