Normal Reactions to an Abnormal Situation: Managing Life at Home and Work During Covid-19

Dec 11, 2020 11:56:32 AM

After months of working from home during the Coronavirus pandemic, it might be a good time to pause and assess -- where are we? Not only with our physical and emotional well-being, but also, for many, with the transition to working primarily from our homes. We are all concerned about meeting the demands of our jobs and balancing the needs of our families, while grappling with creating and maintaining the habits that will help us achieve both of these things.

Many of us struggle with the feeling we are not managing our jobs and our family relationships and responsibilities as well as we used to, and that even the simplest tasks can feel exhausting. It can be helpful to give context to what we all are experiencing in terms of “threat response” - which is our own biological wiring that helps protect us during a perceived crisis or threat.

It might be useful to start by looking at some common responses to the COVID-19 Crisis, which can impact both our personal and our professional lives. I like to think about these threat responses as “normal reactions to an abnormal situation” - and we can probably agree that there is much about 2020 that can be called abnormal.

Common Responses to the COVID-19 Crisis:

  • Anxiety, worry, panic, depression
  • Fatigue – both cognitive and physical
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • Feeling helpless, confused, angry
  • Social withdrawal
  • Overexposure to Media
  • Uncertainty about how to respond to and protect ourselves from this “threat”
  • Work From Home (WFH) burnout

Each of these can impact job performance, personal effectiveness, and overall well-being. The truth is, with any threat to our physical or psychological well-being, (in this case, the Coronavirus) we can experience a combination of cognitive and emotional changes to our “normal” functioning.

Additionally, there are three major themes regarding how many of us are psychologically experiencing this moment in history; these themes are related to the loss of things we generally need to feel psychologically safe, secure and protected. We are, in effect, grieving the way of life many of us took for granted prior to COVID-19.

Click here to download your tool: Normal Reactions to an Abnormal Situation

 Let’s take a look at each of the three major themes and their implications for our well-being:

  • Loss of Certainty: We are uncertain of how long this will continue, what the ultimate outcome will be, how long we will need to work from home, how we will fulfill the obligations of our work responsibilities, as well as how we will personally be impacted by COVID-19. There is also uncertainty about the long-term economic impact of this crisis, and how it will affect job stability and the economic health of our respective industries.
  • Loss of Control: We experience a lack of control related to our ability to do our jobs and perhaps effectively manage our teams in the way in which we are accustomed, over the proximity of our relationships, over our ability to move in the world, and over how this crisis affects our lives and the lives of those we love.
  • Loss of Connectedness: Under normal circumstances, when we are stressed or face a perceived threat, we seek comfort from others. We work together in our groups, we socialize, we ask for a hug. These are all forms of connection and being in the physical presence of those we love and trust calms us – it is how human beings are generally programmed. Even at work, most of us find connectedness with our teams and our colleagues. This crisis has severely affected our ability to relate to others and find support and comfort in the ways in which we are accustomed. The result can be feelings of isolation, loneliness and sadness.

So think for a moment – where are you in your own emotional and cognitive response process, at work and at home, to the current situation?

What is important to remember here is that when we understand what is happening in terms of our own responses, (and our own sense of loss), we can focus on what we can do to get through this time in as healthy a manner as possible. Awareness of where we are can help us be cognizant of the need to expand our employee wellness and self-care efforts in order to bring levels of stress and anxiety down to more manageable levels.

Knowing that this awareness is key, what can we do? How can we manage our responses and our sense of loss in healthy ways, especially as we see that our need to stay at home has extended longer than previously anticipated? 

Using our framework, some ideas might include:   

Managing the Loss of Certainty

  • Limit your media intake of the event.
  • Create a schedule for yourself and adhere to it, both at home and in the virtual office.
  • Adjust your expectations of yourself; understand anxiety is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation – and this is one heck of an abnormal situation. Adjust your workload and home responsibilities accordingly and with flexibility.
  • Remind yourself that this time and this way of being will end eventually.
Managing the Loss of Control

Make a list of the things you can control, such as:

  • Work schedule – try to limit extra work hours
  • Workspace – it’s helpful to create a designated workspace
  • Meals – focus on healthy foods
  • Exercise – regular exercise can improve your emotional well-being
  • Family time
  • Vacation time
  • Sleep
  • Practice a mindset of gratitude, optimism, patience

Managing the Loss of Connectedness

  • Connect with others on a daily basis. Connect with those with whom you work, or those you supervise, and with those you love. Call, text, Zoom, email, etc.
  • Use time to re-connect with others you may not have connected with in a while.
  • Check in with those that might need it.
  • Engage in “virtual” coffee breaks, work happy hours and celebrations, with others on a regular basis.

In addition, while we know that these ideas are useful for all of us individually, we should remember that they can also be beneficial for our work teams. Goals for team coping can include:

  • Meet on a regularly scheduled and virtual basis.
  • Communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more.
  • Focus on what you can control as a group.
  • Designate time to check in with how people are doing, not just what they are doing.
  • Discuss “what really matters” to your work group – prioritize workload.
  • Create goals that are short-term and achievable.
  • Understand that, for the time being, it’s not “business as before” - adjust expectations of yourself and others to meet the current circumstances
  • Celebrate milestones, birthdays, accomplishments as a team in a virtual space.
  • Ensure your team members do not work themselves into the ground; vacation time and break time are necessary for productive and healthy employees.

Final Thoughts

It’s important to remember that what you are experiencing right now is likely a normal reaction to what continues to be a very abnormal situation. As we continue to navigate this very uncertain time, try to keep in mind the following:

  • As a work group, stay connected, support each other, identify priorities, and celebrate milestones.
  • Try to plug in the “right things” to help your body and mind cope with the current circumstances.
  • Stay aware of your stress level and your responses – be kind to yourself and implement healthy coping strategies.
  • Be empathic to yourself and others; show empathy and adjust expectations, both in your work life and in your home life.
  • Stay connected to those you care about.
  • If you are struggling emotionally, please seek outside resources such as EAP, physician, or your metal health practitioner.

    Remember, we are in this together – and that at some point, this too really shall pass. 

Click here to download your tool:  Normal Reactions to an Abnormal Situation