As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In Work Flow, we delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.
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Q: COVID-19 has thrown all of us into uncharted, scary waters. Now that some businesses are reopening, some people are returning to the office while others are staying home. I’m grappling with my choices, my fears, and how to maintain a sense of purpose and even enjoyment of my work (I love my job, but what does any of it all mean?!) in these uncertain times. How do I prepare to possibly return to an office environment when I’m not sure what that will look like? How will I know when I’m ready—or whether I should go back at all? Can you provide some tips for being more flexible and adaptable, and generally better able to cope, as things keep changing?
Therapists often say that anxiety describes fear of the unknown, and boy, are we in some anxious times. There is so much unknown, and a lot of misinformation out there to boot. In the absence of clear, calm, trustworthy guidance, our heads are spinning, going from worried to panicked to angry to sad and back again.
It can be hard to focus on what’s meaningful and joyous about our lives in all that, or to concentrate on work at all. This is completely and totally reasonable! Think about how much the world has gone through in the past six months. This is a time of rapid change, and that’s never easy—though I have hopes that we’ll ultimately come out of all of this for the better. (Fingers crossed. And crossed again.)
One thing that perks up my spirits is when I think about how adaptable humans can be. A whole lot of people have adopted new habits in light of COVID-19, like not hugging or shaking hands but social distancing instead, washing their hands thoroughly (for at least 20 seconds), and wearing masks. Companies have had to adapt as well, implementing extensive cleaning and safety procedures—everything from staggering arrival times to increasing airflow inside the office—for when employees do return to work.
I have gotten so many emails from establishments I frequent or buy from, detailing what they’re doing to adapt their businesses in light of COVID-19. Even though it’s a lot of email, I’m impressed—both by how they’re taking it seriously and how they’re embracing communication right now. Some businesses will transition to more remote or flexible workplaces, if they can, for the duration or longer. It’s honestly inspiring to think about how, even in light of a fatal virus, humans keep adapting and figuring out how to be safe and productive in this world. (Sure, there are exceptions, but I’m still pretty impressed with a lot of us! And, did you know that the most successful leaders are also flexible?)
Here are some techniques to help yourself cope in a time of huge flux.
1. Spend a few moments each day on the good stuff
One of the ways to soften unease during uncertain, troubling times is to develop a gratitude practice. Before you write this idea off, think about it like this: When our brains are reeling and can’t focus, thinking about one or two or several happy, positive things that you are grateful for can really help you remember all the good there is in being you.
You take a breath and remember the point (even if the point has changed): We are all on this earth together, and hopefully some good can come of that; you can enjoy being with the people you love; you can make a little bit of difference or impact in the world; you can partake of food or hobbies or conversations you enjoy; you can spend a moment in nature, or on a walk, or doing whatever it is that makes you feel right here in this moment we’re in and appreciate it.
You say, for instance, that you love your job, and that’s great stuff! Why do you love it? Think about that. Think about how it brings you meaning, and what you can do with it, even in these times. Think about what might come next for you, in this job you love. Jot down a few notes about it, your hopes and plans for the future doing this work, and how you might achieve what you want. Really immerse yourself in that for a bit—it’s an escape, but it’s also your job, and that is a good thing!
And because COVID-19 has crushed some of our planning abilities (e.g., plane travel, future vacations, etc.), it’s nice for the planners among us to plan something else, like where you might want your career to go in the next five years. It scratches that same kind of itch, in a way. Try to combine one part gratitude/deep breaths/being in the moment and one part looking forward, preparing, and planning, in whatever ways you can.
2. Seek out information
Because anxiety thrives on the unknown, you can help yourself by taking in good information. For instance, if you’re considering going back to work (or back to anywhere), check on the safety measures that businesses are putting forward. Review federal guidelines on preparing workplaces for COVID-19. Check out what the CDC has to say about businesses and workplaces reopening.
Then, see how your company measures up (and if your company hasn’t reached out with any information or guidelines, ask what they’re planning to do on reentry). I found this video from the University of Michigan School of Public Health to be very soothing. Just talking about these things can take out a little bit of the anxiety related to them, because at least we’re talking.
In terms of the news, limit your intake if it feels overwhelming. However, checking in on the current infection rates in your area can help give you a sense of the potential danger, so you can prepare and protect yourself— have there recently been a lot of new cases, or are things pretty calm? Why might that be? But if you notice that your news intake leads to spikes in anxiety, take a break from TV/internet/social media.
3. Protect yourself
You know the drill here, but there is a lot you can do personally to prevent the spread of the virus, both in and out of the office. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time. Don’t touch your face. Carry hand sanitizer for times when you can’t wash with soap and water. Maybe even prepare your own special kit containing the things you think you’ll need to get by (my parents have a bag with gloves, masks, and wipes that they bring everywhere). Continue to pay attention to and follow guidelines for social distancing and mask-wearing in public spaces.
Specifically in an office setting, you’ll want to clean and disinfect your keyboards and phones regularly, as well as other frequently touched objects in your work area, including doorknobs. Also, if you’re sick, feel like you might be getting sick, or have a sick family member at home, ask your employer if you can work from home and don’t go into the office. And when the worries start to spin out or occupy a large portion of your daily thoughts or prevent other activities or enjoyments, consider talking to a doctor, therapist, or trusted friend.
Finally: The power of a good night’s sleep (or many) cannot be underestimated.
4. Know that you can’t control everything
Just living is a matter of assessing risk over and over again, and then doing as much as you can to live the life you want to live (while keeping in mind that we share a world with one another and, you know, do unto others as you would have them do unto you). So take it day by day. As things change, the best you can do is listen to yourself.
Try to think of challenges as opportunities. When facing something difficult, ask yourself these questions: Is there a way to do this better, in a way that will make me feel more comfortable? Why is this so challenging, can I name it? What are possible solutions to the problems out there, and can I implement any of them or suggest them to those who might? Am I reacting viscerally to change with fear? Is there a way I can change that? Do I need to just take a moment and breathe?
Remember: You are not alone! Don’t beat yourself up. Keep going, keep trying, and keep listening to yourself and others. These times are hard enough—you’re doing the best you can.
Jen Doll is a journalist and author of the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Harper’s Bazaar, the New York Times, and other publications.