Join our ‘Leading for Mental Health’ session September 1st at 3.30PM.
The context of Covid in Australia is the horrendous bushfires, and for some that means stress and perhaps not a restful summer break, and of course the concern of climate change. On top of that Covid, the disease itself and all of our ways of trying to reduce the spread, reminder us that all is not well.
I think it is useful to remind ourselves that anxiety is our body mind system sensing that we are not safe. This sensing is based on what we have stored as a result of our past experience mixed with our survival drives. Due to past exposure and natural disposition, some are naturally more sensitive than others. Paul Gilbert reminds us that it is not your fault but your responsibility to manage.
The body picks up dangers
Our bodies cannot lie, so when they go into their anxiety mode, they do so because they sense that it is called for. They don’t do it to annoy us nor to betray us. The language of the reactive is the body, and right now most of our bodies are picking up that things are uncertain; there is a context of danger and therefore we are not safe.
Part of this is Covid itself, part of it is generated by the media, but also as we are all contagious in terms of ideas and feelings, we pick up the anxiety from each other. Soon we live in an anxiety soup and we do silly things like hoard. Anxiety highjacks attention for the sake of survival and therefore our dominant viewpoints easily become: danger and problems for ME.
Professor Paul Gilbert says of the three emotional regulation systems – Threat, Drive and Connected/Contented – that the drive state is a state where we have a background sense that we are not safe such as during a war or famine or pandemic. Once in Drive our focus is on ourselves and the task at hand, our perspective narrows, and our cortisol levels remain high. Sustained high levels lead to a sense of overwhelm (or even resignation), tiredness, and inability to concentrate, sleep or sense the positive or love.
Who is most at risk?
From my interviews it is clear that the most challenged are singles (in particular if they have moved recently and/or are far away from family) and parents who have the major responsibility for the children. Naturally those who have lost their jobs are not featured, but nonetheless they should get a mention.
According to US data, women do 85% of the home-schooling hours and so it is no surprise that they are stressed! They described feeling endless guilt, an endless emotional tug – guilt when not working and spending time with kids, and guilt when working and not spending time with the kids.
Uncertainty – roller coaster
Throughout all the interviews it was clear that this situation is an emotional rollercoaster. One minute we are enjoying things being a little calmer, next we are realising we can’t see family in other countries and states, next we are enjoying a home-made meal and good times around the dinner table, next we are saddened by all the suffering in the world, followed by guilt that we should be so lucky to live here and why can’t we feel the gratitude?
We have been thrown into the unknown, we don’t know when and if it will end and how it will end. Initially there was a ‘we can do it’ attitude but that has now been replaced with Covid fatigue. We are missing social interactions, missing trips away, missing significant family events and seeing relatives in far away countries.
Overwork and underwork
Some feel overworked and some are staring into the possibility of reduced hours or unemployment. For many, working at home has meant a flexibility that has improved life quality. Working at home during Covid, however, has not always been all that we thought it would be. It seems clear that the negative old stereotypes around working from home have been internalised. We worry that we may be seen as not committed to work, not working as hard, and not being as ambitious. This means that there is sometimes a fear of taking a break, even a toilet break, in case it looks as if you are slacking off. Many interviewees talked of not taking time for lunch, and the commute time now being integrated into the workday. Overall it was clear that those interviewed are working even longer hours than before Covid. And many have not taken a break, some out of loyalty or because there is too much on, and some due to not being able to go anywhere anyway.
This all means the focus for management and leadership needs to be the risk of staff burnout rather than a concern about lack of productivity when staff are working at home.
The tyranny of positive psychology
During the past decade we have linked positive emotions with success and negative emotions with failure. This is a challenge during this time. We might deny how we actually feel, we might pretend, we might feel shame that we can’t just be grateful. We even might feel a pressure to feel grateful and loving while we are aching, full of fear and anxiety.
Suppressing or denying how we actually feel generates anxiety in itself as there is a lack of congruence within ourselves.
The most helpful strategies shared by interviewees were:
- Have and maintain a routine. This means putting away work at a set time and not getting it out again before a set time in the morning
- Ask for and ensure you have support
- If you did commute, then turn this time into your time and enjoy home duties, and if you didn’t commute, find another time for this.
- Walk every day
- Ensure you take breaks – eating breaks, toilet breaks, little walks, big walks and days off
- Ask yourself what your 8 year old and your 80 year old self needs
- Know this as a time in your life where you can reflect a little more on what is important. It is an opportunity to reset. This gives this time a new context.
- Do mindfulness practice
Big lesson – we thought that we control our lives but we don’t.
What it means for leadership
The experiences shared are diverse in content and intensity, and also vary during the day. It is a much more emotionally volatile space to be leading in. This may mean that we need a culture that supports individual needs, on a given day in a given moment. Presence and awareness are needed. Leaders need to be available to the human dimension, and that is hard if they themselves are floundering.