How to protect your well-being at work during a crisis

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Daily life has changed drastically for people across the globe, including in our work lives. Many of us are now working remotely for the first time, not able to work at all, or working long hours in hazardous conditions. At the same time, we’re facing fear, grief, financial hardship, loneliness, and other challenges.

With all of these changes, it is important now more than ever to collectively invest in our well-being, both in general and at work.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas is the science director at the Greater Good Science Center, and instructor for The Science of Happiness at Work online course series. The courses teach students what happiness at work means, why it matters, and where it comes from. They provide actionable strategies and practices for boosting happiness at work personally, among colleagues, and across the entire organization. I had a conversation with Simon-Thomas about how to protect and sustain well-being at work in the age of COVID-19.

Jessica Lindsey: For you personally, what’s changed in your workflow and what challenges or upsides have you experienced?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: My work just got really, really busy. At the onset of the pandemic, we tried to be responsive to the social and emotional challenges that people were facing, relying much more heavily on virtual channels, like hosting Facebook Live chats every Thursday. Everything really pivoted into that space for me.

At the same time, I stopped going into the office and interacting with my colleagues, and all of the collaborative work that I’ve been doing shifted over to Google Docs and email. This made collaboration trickier; we don’t have the intonation, gesturing, posture, or facial expressions that help us understand each other in person. I think it’s really easy to misread or read things into typed text that might be inaccurate or unintended by the sender.

I’ve had to make adjustments in my work to deliberately set up video conference calls, instead of relying on brief emails or catching up with that person by walking down to their office spontaneously at some point in the day.

JL: What kinds of challenges does this crisis pose for our work life, across professions?

EST: It’s really different for everyone. And it depends on the professional sector that a person is in. Health care professionals are facing a different variety of challenges than elementary school teachers. In general, though, there are unique challenges related to this pandemic that affect what I consider to be the four keys to happiness at work: purpose, engagement, resilience, and kindness.

In terms of purpose, the very nature of suddenly being required to do our jobs differently makes us all a bit reflective. And in that moment of reflection, we’re wondering, am I really doing the thing I want to do? Is this really meaningful to me, and does it align with my core values? Am I making a difference? And how can I maintain that sensibility?

Imagine that you are a cook in a local restaurant and you only can prepare food for delivery during the “shelter in place” directive. It could be quite challenging to maintain the sense of purpose that you had freely available when your food was being served to people who were giving you feedback. The lack of direct contact with the impact of our efforts can deprive us of purpose.

In terms of engagement, I think the challenges can be very pragmatic. For example, two of my neighbors run theater companies, so their days were spent with groups of people acting, choreographing, and rehearsing scenes together. Now that’s just not possible. And I think trying to migrate that experience to virtual channels, through video conferencing, for example, can be dispiriting. Shifting to screens can feel less inspiring and we can have a harder time getting into that state of flow where we are fully immersed in our work.

Resilience might be the biggest challenge that we are all facing right now. There is endless ambiguous news, and we don’t really know how severe or lasting the risk will be. We don’t really know what we have to plan for or for how long. This is a chronic stressor, not only about work, but also about the pandemic and our lives in general.  Most of us are also rapidly adapting to daily changes that are stressful—for example, if you’re a health care provider and you still need to go to work but your children’s school has been canceled, how do you manage?

In terms of kindness, the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t inherently make it harder for us to concern ourselves with the welfare of our communities, nation, or people around the globe. Some of us actually may find that we have more time or space to think about how we could help others without the dense, busy schedules that we might have been holding ourselves to before. At the same time, it is definitely more challenging to actually help someone in person. There are many ways we might have incidentally shared simple kindnesses with our colleagues or clients or other people we interacted with in the workplace that are not happening right now.

JL: How can we foster a sense of purpose, engagement, resilience, and kindness at work now?

EST: We have a variety of practices in The Foundations of Happiness at Work course that could help us reconnect with and ground our work in our core values. One of them is to read through a list of core human values that are considered universal, and then rank them in terms of importance to your life and work. This practice works best if you write about why that value is important to you, how closely it aligns with your work, and how you might adjust your efforts to serve your top-ranking value.

For example, K-12 teachers, who tend to rank learning and growth high, might rekindle purpose by considering their rushed virtual lesson plans as a lifeline to students’ continued learning.

Engagement is a tough one. What comes to mind though, is introducing a little bit more emotional depth and levity into our professional interactions. Richer, more authentic sharing and laughter both tap into the intrinsic motivation that comes from knowing that we are working together with other people. When we feel emotionally close or psychologically safe, we’re more driven to do our part. Amusement and laughter are important to signaling friendliness, and shifting us away from ruminating on pandemic woes. Maybe there’s a way to incorporate a round of favorite jokes or cartoons into the next video conference meeting, just to bring each other that lightness.

For resilience, or coping with stressful moments at work, the idea that I think matters most is mindfulness. Mindfulness practices involve directing our attention to the inner experience and outer context of the moment that we are in, in a gentle and nurturing way. The simplest version is to take three full, deep breaths noticing air going into your chest and belly, then slowly exhale, again observing the air going out of your lips. Grounding our awareness in the present moment, we draw attention away from worry about the future or recent events. It also calms the branch of our nervous system that prompts us to fight or flee, and calms the pandemic-related thinking that’s distracting us from the work that we’re trying to do.

In terms of kindness, one of the most fun ideas is random acts of kindness—that is, doing something nice for another person. Maybe you could deliver a small, sanitized gift to a neighbor’s doorstep. Or send a colleague an email that’s a little bit more thoughtful and heartfelt when it would otherwise be bland and logistical. Maybe arrange a social gathering over Zoom for someone who you know doesn’t have the technological skills or resources to do that, but would really benefit from being able to see some friendly faces. Thinking of new ways to be kind during COVID-19 can be an uplifting challenge for everyone.

JL: For those who are on the front lines, what advice do you have for them in particular?

EST: That’s a hard question to answer, not being in that predicament myself. I do think that anyone under any circumstance, as stressful or painful as it may be, would benefit from being able to find some ease in mindfulness. Just taking a deep breath before you open the door. When you feel your shoulders tense up and your teeth clench, take a moment and deliberately release that tension.

Then, I think it is super valuable for frontline working people to remember to ask for help. At work, there is often a chasm between the people who need help and the people who would be glad to help. Given the more intense demands that many frontliners are facing, we have to compensate. Studies show that most people appreciate being given a chance to help. If you need help, it’s better to ask—we care, helping is an honor, and it makes us feel important, too. As helpers, we can make ourselves known by reaching out and offering support and affirmation to people performing essential work.

JL: How can leaders or managers support their employees?

EST: I think it’s really important for leaders to communicate often and to be extra transparent. Leaders need to openly share their objectives, discuss the state of the organization, and, when possible, obtain collaborative input on the actions they’re taking to mitigate challenges tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leaders need to acknowledge and honor the inherent and pervasive stress that people are experiencing, and to give space for people to manage their feelings and handle personal matters. Employees might have someone in their family who is sick, they themselves might be sick, or they might be adjusting to having their children schooling at home. I think asking employees to keep working is a great idea, but it should be coupled with an absolute willingness to accept a “No thank you” or “I can’t do it,” and an open invitation to rejoin when possible.

I encourage leaders not to model or set expectations for hyper-productivity during COVID-19, just shifting from the over-scheduled work habits that they may have had before this pandemic to a new kind of over-scheduled, screen-monopolized pattern of working. This makes it more difficult for people to manage the real challenges of living through this time.

JL: Are there any opportunities or silver linings we could reflect on that could come from this experience?

EST: On the one hand, there’s been a remarkable escalation of technical skills—primarily teachers and traditionally in-person enterprises discovering how to use online platforms−which may end up increasing access and reach moving forward. People are thinking more creatively as a result of being deprived of ordinary resources and circumstances. Stories about plummeting smog and pollution inspire hope for our potential to collectively address environmental challenges.

And there’s this kind of sweetness of humanity that is emerging from the pandemic. It is bringing out sympathy and compassion between people, even toward people we’ve never met. We can see that some of the collective action that we’ve mobilized to avoid spreading coronavirus has been effective. We could also just not care, right? We could have gone, “Well, forget it. I will just take care of myself and wash my hands.” But many of us are practicing physical distancing knowing that the biggest savings is our health care infrastructure, older adults, and others who are at greater risk than ourselves. There’s something really heartening and sweet about that.

If, in the wake of COVID-19, humans all came together in a similar way to address other causes—maybe world hunger, decade-long wars, public education, or natural disasters—we could do so much to improve humanity. So I’m hoping that we remember our collective zeal and commitment.

This article first appeared on The Greater Good, the online magazine of The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.