As leaders during this challenging time of COVID-19 quarantine, we’ve been asked to make wholesale changes to how we work and collaborate with our teams, how we interact with our families and friends, and even how we shop and perform basic tasks in a complex society. With all this change, it’s easy to ignore ourselves and our mental states, and early indicators like more than 50% increases in alcohol purchases don’t bode well for how we’re coping with these challenges.
Atop all this, sprinkle in social media posts that show people “living their best life,” baking artisanal breads, harvesting their own crops, learning a dozen languages, and writing their next novels, all in their first week of being in lockdown. It’s a recipe for significant mental stress that might find you snapping at something simple, like when the home Wi-Fi goes out during an important call.
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Being aware of and maintaining your mental health has never been more important, especially with our personal networks and freedom of movement now limited. Most companies have professional resources available, ranging from mental health telemedicine to dedicated phone numbers that can provide access to help. In addition to these resources, here are some easy tips to look after your mental health during the coronavirus crisis.
I’ve spoken with many colleagues, and a recurring theme is that our new video conference-based reality creates a framework for near-nonstop working. On many days, simple activities like having lunch are reduced to stuffing something in one’s maw during the four minutes between video calls, whereas on even the most intense workday, lunch at least involves a walk to the cafeteria or break room, and a few minutes of mental “unplugging.” There’s also an additional level of stress due to staring at huge faces on a screen for most of your day, a very different level of intensity to human interactions that usually take place at a greater physical distance.
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While simple and seemingly unnecessary, I’ve resorted to blocking time on my calendar for lunch, dinner, a daily workout, and a couple of strategically placed 15-minute blocks to get up from the computer and do anything from taking a walk to having a chat with my family. These blocks are often unceremoniously overbooked, but if I can maintain 50% of them each day it’s better than allowing every moment of the workday to be consumed with video conferences. One other “trick of last resort” I’ve long employed to keep moving throughout the day is to keep a large container of water at my desk, and make sure I’m drinking a containerful on a regular basis, and that I refill each time I get up from my desk for a biology-enforced walkabout.
If you’re up to it, try some different non-work activities. Our family, which hasn’t been too interested in puzzles in the past, has a set of rainy-day jigsaw puzzles that have been a fun activity when stuck inside. Since we missed our annual spring break we are building a family treehouse instead, and picking up a saw and hammer in the evenings and weekends, and watching a pile of lumber gradually turn into something resembling a structure has been a great break from work and homeschooling for all of us. Any activity that engages different skills and different parts of your brain can help shake the feeling that “virtual” work means working virtually every waking hour.
Start the day with gratitude
I’m not one for new-age nonsense but have embraced the idea of gratitude and being thankful for the world and people around you. This is more than just a nice sentiment, but a practical tool I use to set up each day for success. I use an approach that’s a variation of the Five Minute Journal, where I write down three things I’m grateful for each morning. There are fancy paper journals available, free PDF worksheets, or you can use an app on your phone, but in any event, the simple exercise of thinking through what you’re grateful for each morning sets the tone for the rest of the day, with the idea that you can’t “win” the day if all you see ahead is darkness before you even roll out of bed.
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The simple exercise of thinking through three things I’m grateful for, which could be as simple as a hug from a child, or as profound as a deeper understanding of what’s important to you immediately shifts your mental state for the better, with a trivial investment of time and energy.
Leverage the network you have
Technology leaders usually aren’t the first people you think of when considering who is most in touch with their mental wellness and inner sentiment, but we’re all going through a challenging time. As part of the small-talk with a boss or trusted peer, a simple comment like “This virtual work feels way more intense than a day in the office to me, do you feel the same way?” could provide a bit of validation at minimum, and might open a richer conversation about the stresses of this unusual time. Spouses, neighbors (socially distanced, of course), and even children can be great conversational partners and might have insights you’ve not considered.
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You’ll also likely discover that social media presents a filtered view of the world, in more ways than one, and that actual humans are just as stressed as you are, and probably aren’t living the charmed lives that come across on Instagram and Facebook.
As always, if these simple techniques don’t help to shake a dark mood. If you find yourself dreading the start of the workday, call in the professionals. It’s unfortunate that there’s still a stigma regarding mental health, especially among leaders. However, just as you wouldn’t “tough out” a broken bone versus seeing a doctor to get it repaired, neither should you “tough out” a broken mental state, especially when the consequences of the latter are far more dire in the long run.