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Burn bright, not out: protecting health and wellbeing during a pandemic

 

“Zoom fatigue” is here and its effects on health and wellbeing are becoming increasingly clear. Professor of Organisational Behaviour Gianpiero Petriglieri claims that we expend far more energy during video calls because non-verbal cues such as body language and facial expressions are harder to interpret. In addition, silences instil greater anxiety via this medium than in real-life conversation. There is also a performative feel to big group calls. He notes that it’s “like you’re watching television, and television is watching you.” In essence, video calls can have a negatie effect on our mental wellbeing - they can be more tiring, more anxiety-inducing and less relaxing.

This is one of the many difficulties that employees are experiencing during the Covid-19 crisis. No doubt, a whole host of other challenges to our wellbeing will be documented over the next few months. In a bid to embrace self-care so that they can continue to help others, the American Counseling Association are taking steps to #BurnBrightNotOut. Assistant Professor of Counsellor Education, John Harrichand, says that “self-care means giving the world the best of you instead of what is left of you.” Drawing on personal stories, spiritual approaches and psychological research, here is some advice around how you can develop a personal wellbeing strategy to avoid burnout during these unprecedented times.

A personal wellbeing strategy: Looking to the past 

For many, the pandemic has encouraged us to reflect on our lives. We now miss things that we previously took for granted, from our morning walk to work to coffee mornings with colleagues, and we’re questioning our fundamental values due to the existential threat that the virus presents. While this tendency to look back on the past can arouse feelings of regret, shame, and sadness, it can also be a thoroughly constructive exercise. Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Georgia Watkins argues that one useful question is “What lessons has this taught me?” She encourages us to think about who we are as opposed to who we believe we ought to be. Start a sentence with “I am someone who…” and finish it with something factual rather than judgmental, for example “I am someone who has more energy in the morning than at night and never used it”. This activity takes only a few minutes, but in doing so, we learn how to accept our whole self and become our own best friend.

Author Sheila Kohler, on the other hand, encourages us to consider: “What is the greatest gift your mother gave you?” Whoever it may be, thinking about our strongest source of comfort as a child can offer solace when facing challenges presented by our new work schedules, whether it’s exhaustion from balancing work with childcare, or guilt and frustration from the furlough process. Kholer explains how memories of her mother have inspired her creativity to write: “She comes to me again and again and enables me to return to the page always searching to uncover her secrets with the kind of perseverance only hope, which comes from her ultimately loving presence, can bring.” Looking through memorabilia reminds us of our relationship with that source of comfort, offering momentary relief during the darker days.

A personal wellbeing strategy: Looking to the present 

To say that our work lives have altered dramatically would be an understatement. In keeping with the metaphor of fire, counsellor Janay Whittaker’s spiritual outlook is beautiful and motivational. In her work, she focuses on creating community wherever she goes by bringing people together to share experiences: “I surround myself with other fires that spark, fuel, and feed me and vice versa. Through engaging with and fuelling one another, we individually and collectively burn brighter, like a natural wildfire bringing light, warmth, renewal, and rebirth.” This does not mean we need to make 5 Zoom calls a day and give 200% each time. It is perhaps better to be more selective about the calls we make (or their duration if the call is essential), and opt to interact with those who prevent our fire from being reduced to a glowing ember.

Psychology attests to the value of practices such as gratitude or meditation to navigate periods of stress, but these are also the things that we find easy to neglect just when we need them most. It is even less likely that we’ll implement these tools if we didn’t form the habit, and therefore recognise their value, prior to the pandemic. It can, however, be reassuring to know that struggling and thriving co-occur, according to performance researcher Adam Fraser. Having studied 800 professionals working in highly dynamic environments, he has found that we can either see struggle as a threat or a as challenge. If we opt for the former, then we tend to avoid, or blame others for, the struggle. However, if we opt for the latter, then we have the opportunity to exhibit courage and evolve. In turn, this actually contributes to our happiness, rather than undermine it. So, while many of us are enduring extreme difficulties, simply framing the moment-by-moment struggles as mini opportunities for growth can increase our confidence that we can tolerate the situation. Indeed, “winning the moment” removes the pressure to engage in less familiar and cognitively taxing techniques, such as shifting thoughts or beliefs, and instead emphasizes the impact of focusing on the smaller actions that will move us forward there and then.

A personal wellbeing strategy: Looking to the future

While this period is rife with uncertainty, one thing that can help is considering what we are excited to do when things return to a level of normalcy. Dr. Watkins encourages us to think about: “What are you most anticipating?” Make a list of all the activities you want to do and who with. This not only keeps us motivated but crucially gives us hope. While it feels as though our hope is being tested, it is exceptionally vital right now, according to “The Art of Doing” authors Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield. Hope is not merely a passive activity of wishful thinking. Hope is an act because it requires something from us: “With each small act we muster – acts that make sense to us regardless of their outcome – hope draws us on. And as it draws us on, we come to realize that hope is a renewable resource, replenishing itself with our small steps of progress.”

 

Published 28th May 2020