The cure includes compassion, curiosity, and clarity.
The political situation has left people tense for a while now.
Add COVID-19 worries to the mix, and we have a global community of people on edge. We still have to get shit done, though. How do you push your concerns aside to make it through the workday? It’s more important than ever to take care of yourself. Do all of the things you should usually do; eat right, get enough sleep, exercise, drink water. Add to that, take care of your head, and the heads of those who work for you.
Though this situation arose from a medical issue, there’s nothing clinical about it. This speaks to a deep-seated fear within all of us: we want to stay safe. We want to keep our loved ones safe. (And if you’re a manager, you want to keep your people safe.)
I recently was reminded of how and why health is everything when my wife broke her ankle. We went from a fun Saturday night with friends to a terrifying night in the ER. Seeing my wife in that much pain, and so vulnerable, was a sobering reminder of what matters most. Keep in mind that while it was my wife who was affected, my stress went through the roof, making me feel sick and drained, too. Similarly, we as a society are making ourselves ill with worry and concern about the virus.
While I feel pretty powerless when it comes to helping the world at large recover from this crisis, I recognize that I can make a difference in my world by sharing with others the approaches that keep me moving forward. On the one hand, mindfulness to calm the amygdala’s fight-flight-freeze instinct and usher in clarity. And on the other, first-principles reasoning to reveal the truth. That’s the tonic to cure irrational fear and anxiety.
Altogether, this gives me a thoughtful basis for communication to help reassure my team, comfort our colleagues, clients, family, and friends, and overall keep our workplace physically and emotionally healthy.
Inoculate with the truth
There’s a lot of misinformation out there. To cut through speculation and get to what’s real, we have to change the way we think. Question and doubt everything until you get to the undeniable truth — this is first-principles reasoning that goes back to the age of Aristotle.
As first-principles thinker Elon Musk says, “You boil things down to the fundamental truths, and reason up from there.”
So back to COVID-19, and an easy way to help quell fear: become a fact finder. If you see an upsetting headline, note its origin. Is it a news source you trust? Here are some trustworthy sources:
- The World Health Organization / @WHO on Twitter
- The CDC
- Any major newspaper with health reporters on staff (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, etc.)
- Your local state government
First-principles thinking says forget analogies, because that is just a regurgitation of what others think, say, or do — and going on assumptions can be hazardous to your health. Get to the truth by breaking down the core pieces of what you know about COVID-19 and how it applies to your workplace.
Your goal is pretty straightforward: keep the team healthy as the virus spreads.
Think about the obstacles to maintaining a sense of balance and what you can do to counter them. For example:
- Some team members are planning trips to other states in the coming weeks.
- We should ask people to consider postponing trips until the epidemic is under control.
- Our salespeople regularly visit New York City on business, which is looking more like a hotspot each day.
- Once the numbers increase, we should ask people not to go into the City.
- We have a communal kitchen, so we all use the same dishware/cutlery and also often share meals and snacks.
- We should replace everything with paper goods, and stop sharing meals and snacks.
While these all sound like good ideas, they may be more realistic in theory than in practice. That leads to the most important step in applying first-principles thinking, which is to challenge assumptions using a curiosity-driven technique like the 5 Whys exercise.
So with all of the obstacles and actions above, we’re asking people to stop doing certain things.
Because all of those things might lead to them being exposed to COVID-19.
Why are we so concerned about exposure to COVID-19?
Because they might get sick, and that may spread the virus to the rest of the office.
Why do we think they’ll come into work when they’re sick?
Because we’re super busy, and it would be hard to miss too much work.
Why do people believe they’ll miss too much work?
Because our team is primarily in-house and enjoy our collaborative space.
Why can’t our team collaborate from home?
They can, as we have a relatively flexible remote work policy, but there’s still concern about productivity when we’re not all in person.
Bingo! Curiosity unearthed the ultimate truth: fear of lost productivity can complicate a caring and supportive response to the epidemic. What should be done at this early stage, then, is to put in place a coronavirus/remote work policy and infrastructure that encourages people to work from home on an as-needed basis. Whether they’re sick or just concerned about commuting to the office, this is an appropriate option to alleviate stress and make it safe and comfortable for them to work from a distance. (Plus, studies show, distance workers can be more productive than those who work on-site. Now’s your chance to find out!)
PS - My company went 100% remote on 3/12 and have been practicing responsible social distancing since then.
OK, there’s the practical advice — now, how to deal with the anxiety, fear, and distraction that will continue to seep in.
A few years ago, I discovered mindfulness and meditation as a technique to step away from self-defeating negative thoughts and find clarity, contentment, and calm in the present moment. It’s a forgiving practice, one that promotes non-judgment and acceptance, and allows you to put distance between the voice in your head and the reality of what is. Even if you’re not the “meditating type,” this is an excellent time to give it a shot. A simple grounding technique can help you come to your senses (literally):
5: Notice FIVE things you see around you… (i.e., my laptop, a bird outside the window)
4: Acknowledge FOUR things you can touch around you… (i.e., the chair under my bottom, the soft wool of my sweater)
3: Consider THREE things you hear… (i.e., an airplane overhead, the whoosh of my space heater)
2: Think about TWO things you can smell or like to smell…. (i.e., my fresh cup of coffee, my favorite essential oils)
1: Acknowledge ONE thing you can taste. (i.e., toothpaste)
It’s a quick little exercise, but it does the trick to get out of fear and on to coping. You can also check out apps like Calm or Headspace, or even try out this one-minute meditation from Pixel Thoughts.
Facing a pandemic is new for all of us — there is no playbook. But there is solace to be found in the wisdom of ancient thinkers from Aristotle to the Buddha to handle stress and uncertainty. Ultimately, the best way to keep your workplace healthy has as much to do with clearing the air of fear, lies, and misinformation as it does anything else. Curiosity, communication, and connection are the fastest way to stop the spread of work-related anxiety and reassure your team that you care.