Managing the Emotions of a Pandemic

By Gretchen Pettet


“Unprecedented times.”

“Uncharted waters.”

“Unparalleled threat.”

“Uncertain times.”

It feels like there is nothing new to be said about what we are experiencing right now.  I first visited and screenshot a website with the number of COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, March 10.  There were 251 cases in the US.  As of this writing on March 19, Johns Hopkins reports 9415, up from 5894 yesterday at close of business.  For many, the extent of this situation is just now becoming painfully obvious. Even though it’s been just a few days of social distancing, days are feeling like months. 

It goes without saying this is a critical time for all of us, especially leaders.

So much is changing, hard decisions are being made daily.  If you are lucky, your job is secure.  Maybe you’ve sent your employees home to work to keep them safe.  While this definitely minimizes the risk of illness and transmission, it also presents some unique challenges. It’s important we are mindful of the emotions our teams might be feeling and work to support them during this time.  Here is a peek at just a few of the things your staff is dealing with right now and how you might address them.

Frustration

There is no shortage of online resources for those setting up a home office, but many people have weeks or months to get established when getting started in a work from home arrangement.  For those sent home on Friday to start on Monday, this can lead to challenges with setup, equipment issues and technical requirements.  If you work for a larger organization you might have a knowledgeable helpdesk available to support tech issues, but what resources can you share to help staff in set up or troubleshoot Wi-Fi issues? Use of an internal messaging system like Slack can help your team connect to support each other. Setup a Slack channel and encourage your team to share helpful websites and links to online resources.  Internet providers are struggling to meet the newly increased demand and popular tools that usually making working at home easier (think Zoom) are also having intermittent issues.  I’ve worked at home off and on for 20 years and daily for the last three.  My internet stability has been dire for the last 24 hours, despite calling three days ago to increase to the highest package available.  We’ve had staff miss meetings because virtual meeting platforms are not functioning well.  Your team is likely experiencing many new frustrations.  Allow time for them to work through these issues, identify resources when you can and let them know you are there for them.  A little levity would probably go a lot way, too.  Many schools are tweeting jokes and funny videos each day or scheduling virtual costume days.  Our company does virtual happy hours.  What would lighten the mood for your team?

Distracted

Face it, working at home is NOT for everyone, especially right now.  It’s hard to establish routines, we often don’t have the equipment or set up we like and admit it: there are so many distractions.  Twenty-four-hour news, home-schooling, worry, and laundry (if we are honest) are all real distractions.  Have your team agree on a 4-6 hour required work widow and flex on the others.  It might be easier for newly appointed home-schooling parents to do their work before 8:00 AM or after 9:00 PM.  If this is an option for you, explore it.  Encourage regular breaks so your team has time to check up on student learner or throw in a load of laundry. Honestly, our evening calendars have cleared up so if your folks aren’t client facing, most of us have 24 hours available to do work. Let them work when there are the fewest distractions.

Fear

The inverse relationship between the stock market and the number of COVID cases is heartbreaking, at best, terrifying at worst.  Few things create as much fear as uncertainty.  Right now, the uncertainty is the only guarantee.  Some have already faced job loss or financial cuts.  Even if your company is still unscathed, chances are a spouse’s is not or a child’s work study that funded college classes was cut.  Our organization is relatively young and healthy, but we are worried about the health and safety of our parents and grandparents.  Don’t be afraid to ask your people how they are doing. Reach out and stay connected.  See what resources your EAP or insurance plans have available.  Many insurance plans now offer access to virtual healthcare, including counseling.  At a fraction of the cost and from the convenience of home, employees can get access to critical mental healthcare.

Overwhelm

As a work at home employee, one thing is certain; I don’t usually have so much togetherness.  My husband’s employer sent him home with his laptop and headset last week.  Yesterday my children’s school started eLearning.  There are a lot of people in this house ALL FREAKING DAY and it feels pretty overwhelming. The interruptions that used to happen after school and practice start earlier in the day.  My husband, the early riser, is already at the table by the time I come down for coffee.  There is a person in nearly every room and someone in the kitchen at almost all times.  I love my family, but this is all so new.  It takes some getting used to and might require some leniency.  I am fortunate my girls are teenagers and can do their eLearning unsupervised and don’t require childcare.  That’s not the case for my coworkers.  Once schools and daycares started closing, our company declared us a family friendly work zone.  Staff is invited to hold babies and feed toddlers, if necessary, while working.  Taking away what stress you can will reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. What slack can you cut for your team?  How can you make sure the many roles they are fulfilling right now aren’t competing? How can you set them up best for success?

Mental and physical chaos

I used to clean the island and load the dishwasher after everyone left in the morning.  I can’t explain it but having a clean counter helped me focus on my work.  Now every nook and cranny has a laptop, an empty cup or snack wrapper.  The physical chaos causes mental chaos for me (see the section on distractions.)  In addition, with everyone in my house “working” from home, I get displaced from the solitude and privacy of my office when someone has an “important” meeting.  Now I find myself working at the dining room table staring at the island (see the section on frustration.)  Getting outside can really help clear the brain.  Find time and encourage others to walk the dog, do lunges in the driveway, sit in a chair on the deck.  The fresh air is like a hard reset for the brain. 

Loneliness

There is a meme circulating now that says, “Check on your extroverted friends, they are not okay.”  It’s not just extroverts who might be struggling.  Despite, perhaps, being surrounded by family, this is different.  There is something very lonely about not being able to leave your house.  Look for ways to connect with one another.  Quick texts, phone calls or even a quick note can remind people you are thinking about them.  Offer your virtual meeting platform for employees to use after hours to “hangout” with friends. Our kids are part of the most connected generation ever.  Ask them what social media platforms they use.  There is a reason they could spend hours at a time on TikTok, Twitter and Snapchat; they feel connected.   

There is no shortage of emotion right now.  It’s important we all do our part to support one another.  Remember your clients and vendors are likely going through many of the same things. Reach out to them, too. Whatever we can do to support each other for the next few weeks or months will be important. Most of all stay well.

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