As people step up by stepping away from each other, good news is trickling in about COVID-19’s slowing spread, but the bad news often overtakes it. America now has more confirmed cases of the virus than China, there is growing uncertainty over the economy, our health system is at the brink, and our own socially isolated lives have left many feeling anxious and vulnerable. What’s the best way to cope?
In a word, distraction. People need to take small breaks and occasionally long breaks from their workday, their responsibilities, and just the stressful news. How? Individuals manage stress in different ways:
Folks who are more introverted tend to seek solace in quiet activities, often alone or with just a handful of meaningful others. More extroverted folks tend to seek the company of other people. Most people do a bit of both. The problem now is how disruptive the outbreak of COVID19 has become for all of our behavioral patterns. We should not gather in groups larger than 10, and most “hangouts” (bars, restaurants, shopping malls) are closed. Even some safe havens for introverts to escape the house are now unavailable – no libraries, bookstores, or coffee shops.
However, spring arrived very early this year, and the warmer weather opens up parks and neighborhoods for walks, runs, bike rides, and other activities for relief. And if you are stuck inside, note how many people are reaching out to the world on social media – games, challenges, concerts (my own #CoronaConcerts challenge to my musician friends). And with an internet connection comes the possibility of binge watching just about anything.
Back to work
When it’s time to get back to business, you can help refocus attention from the stress around you and your workforce in a few ways. To do that, you should be mindful of what kind of work is being done. Many people have an assembly-line concept of how work is done: you need to be present and working continuously or else you are not performing up to your potential.
Some jobs do fit that template, particularly the ones requiring workers to still show up, despite a pandemic. For these folks, the best way to focus is to set up goals for the next hour or two (e.g., bleaching down surfaces and restocking shelves before 10:00, finding 10 bugs in the software before my phone timer goes off in an hour). When those goals are met, take a 5 minute refresher – that could be stepping outside, doing some pushups, jumping on a gaming app, or whatever seems like a mini reward. After those 5 minutes (again, a timer helps), set up the next goal to be accomplished, rinse and repeat.
For many of us, however, our jobs are about information or ideas – knowledge work. Unlike assembly line workers, where being productive is a continuous stream, knowledge workers often have an ebb and flow pattern of productivity. When I have reports to be created or research to conduct, I often start with a bang in the morning, fall into a sea of distractions in early afternoon, and then start to get something done again around 4:00 pm. Having that great idea, that solution to a problem is productivity for knowledge workers, and most of us can’t sit down for 8-10 hours and produce non-stop ideas and solutions.
For these jobs take some pressure off yourself. Even if you were in the office, happily devoid of the knowledge of a coronavirus, you would be chatting, grabbing coffee, or procrastinating instead of being glued to your computer. Remote working just has different distractions. The key is to observe your own patterns and habits so that you can create more time when you are “on” – creative, energized, and engaged. Again, take some breaks to let your brain rest. Let the logical side relax and have the creative side take over by drawing a scene outside, playing the piano, or stacking some Lego blocks.
For remote-work newbies
If you or your employees are brand new to working from home, technology can come to the rescue against the stress this new environment can bring. Working from home for the first time could make individuals feel isolated, bored, or absent. The best way to plug in is to use technology to connect you with your team. Short “standing meetings” done with everyone’s camera turned on for a video conference is a nice way to start the day. Slack allows for audio and video calls to individuals or small groups.
And yes, you may find yourself working unshowered and in your pajamas – that’s a perk, people! But either you fully embrace that and let your coworkers see you in your natural habitat, or you split your workday into isolated slob time and publicly visible dress-up time. But seeing customers and co-workers while also being seen by them really makes you feel like you are “at” work.”
Compartments are your friend
If you are working virtually or in person with people who are very tense about viruses, politics, toilet paper shortages and other stressors, try to create compartments for work time and for “rest of the world” time. At CultureIQ we have a Slack channel for random postings, which allows one person to vent a bit at one time and then another person to jump in at a different time in a way that let’s us feel like we can share our concerns “over there” but still have our work communication “over here.” For interactions away from a computer, perhaps you suggest to your coworkers that everyone gets to complain for five minutes at the top of the hour, but then no more until the next hour.
If your typical stress-reliever has been stolen by COVID19, then try a slight twist on the old habit. Stream sounds of the coffee shop right into your living room (try mynoise.net or coffitivity.com). Use the web conference service to have virtual lunch with your coworkers. Find ways to get what you need.
And you can take comfort in a myriad of new resources out there for employers and employees coping with stress. At CultureIQ, we’ve launched two free feedback surveys and other useful tools on our Coronavirus Resource Hub and we’ve set up a Remote Work Guidance Center to help leaders and employees ajust to a new working world. Your own company may be gathering other resources you can use – some employers are offering free counseling services. So take a look and take advantage of what’s out there if you need help.
Stay safe, and keep washing those hands. We will get through this.