With the prospect of coronavirus guidelines fluctuating for months to come it’s likely that many of us will have to adapt to a blended working environment – sometimes at home, sometimes at the office. While for some this is the working idyll, for others the lack of continuity and uncertainty can add to anxiety. There is no one size fits all.
With research suggesting that 80% of Brits feel that working from home has negatively impacted their mental health, learning to deal with change and uncertainty can be a difficult skill to master. When control is completely out of your hands, what tactics can you use to come to terms with your new situation?
Acknowledge to move forward
We often try to avoid thinking about the stressors in our lives. When it comes to the ‘new work normal’, these might be very different to the usual workplace stressors; ‘Am I still visible and valued?’, ‘When will I get to see my office bestie again?’, ‘Should I be in the office?’
Most of us know avoidance isn’t a healthy tactic. The easiest way to start dealing with change and anxiety is to own it. Pick up a pen and paper, and take a quiet half hour to list the things that are causing you stress. It’s for your eyes only, but the mere process of allowing yourself to recognise what’s causing upset is a powerful first step.
This might also be an opportunity to think back to times when you might have been in similar situations, and you got through. Reflecting on those occasions when you have overcome difficulties will help remind you that you possess reserves of resilience you might think are running dry. If you can access tangible reminders, like a photo of yourself on graduation day (there were times you thought you’d never make it there!) or crossing the finish line of that 10k, get them framed up by your desk. You’ve got this.
Staying steady in the midst of uncertainty
It seems that ‘in these uncertain times’ has become the mantra of 2020. As Professor of Psychology at the University of California Kate Sweeny says, we are living with two pandemics;
“The viral one, of course, but also a psychological pandemic of uncertainty.”
Being constantly reminded of uncertainty doesn’t help us deal with it. While it’s important to stay engaged with what’s happening around us, sometimes turning off the news, logging out of Twitter and changing up what we read at lunch can give our brains time to recover from the onslaught of bad news.
Tips that I share with my clients to help create and safeguard a feeling of steadiness include:
● Refrain from comparisons. You’ll inevitably compare your insides with someone else’s outsides and that’s never fair.
● Unless your job depends on you being up to the minute with news, listen to it no more than twice a day and never later than 8.00 pm.
● Leave all devices either switched off or on silent away from the bedroom. If you use a meditation app, meditate in a different room and then go to bed.
I’ll tell you what I want..
Dealing with the uncertainty of these times can make us feel that our wants and needs belong on the back burner. I’ve had so many clients talk about how they have to put up with unfulfilling or even mentally damaging work conditions because they are ‘lucky’ to have a job when so many are struggling right now.
While we must of course be aware and do what we can to help those in such difficult situations, our suffering doesn’t diminish theirs. Everyone is entitled to want better, to have boundaries and needs. And, ideally we will be able to express those to others in a healthy way.
Understanding what drives you at work can actually be quite a tough question to answer. For example, you may feel that you are driven by a need to help others. So what happens when you start your dream job at a charity and find that by month two you are miserable, lonely and frustrated? Is it enough that your work falls under the ‘helping others’ umbrella, or is it that actually you want to help others but also feel stretched intellectually, work within a supportive and collaborative team and feel valued by your colleagues?
We may think we know what we want from our work, but it’s not until we distil and define these wants that we can begin to understand how they are not being met.
Right now, our needs might have changed. We might need more social connection from work - how can this be met virtually? We might need more support or understanding from our teams or to be clearer on the goals we can expect from ourselves and others.
Express yourself with clarity
Once you understand what it is you want from work you will be able to much more clearly and effectively articulate to others what your boundaries, needs and vision for yourself is. During times of change and upheaval this can be particularly important. Ignoring your (reasonable) needs for too long will inevitably lead to issues such as burnout.
This isn’t about making demands but about using your new found self-knowledge to build healthy working relationships no matter the external pressures that are not in your control.
Breaking point can sometimes be hard to spot
Many of us are really good at putting on a brave face, telling ourselves to get it together and keep going. This usually only works for a certain amount of time. The longer we put off really looking at what’s going on for us, the more we are setting ourselves up for a potential crash. In the middle of uncertainty and pressure, breaking point might sneak up on us without the warnings we would usually expect.
Signs that you are reaching the tipping point into burnout include fatigue, feeling overwhelmed, drained, difficulty concentrating or sleep issues. You may feel distracted and unable to focus on work that you would normally breeze through. It can even manifest in physical pain, aches and illnesses.
Uncertainty can be a catalyst for burnout. While dealing with the ‘normal’ pressures of work you are doing so with a backdrop of societal anxiety.
My first piece of advice will always be to take note of how you’re feeling and not to dismiss it. Then talk. Whether a trusted colleague, a friend or a professional.
Heed the symptoms your body is giving you. Our bodies are packed with information, if only we would listen. If your habits have changed to your detriment, there’s a reason.
Amanda is a highly experienced psychotherapist and coach based in the City of London since 2004. She has also been offering online therapy for clients across the globe throughout the pandemic. She is a sounding board and experienced ally who has your back and best interests at heart.