I am lucky in that I still have my job while so many have been forced to apply for unemployment benefits during this public health crisis. That includes my husband who works in outdoor event production, which at the moment is completely shut down. My industry, online education, is one of the few verticals that has expanded quickly to accommodate so many learners stuck indoors.
While I worked remotely before the pandemic; my kids went to school, my husband traveled frequently, and my college student lived on campus and was not having “zoom” parties until all hours of the night one thin wall away. My son’s college admission process is in an equal state of upheaval. My 13-year-old daughter has to be dragged away from Netflix to interact with us and my 2nd grader cannot understand a world with no playdates.
You counted right. I have four kids, as well as two dogs. Laundry mounts, kids fight, packages arrive and dogs bark. The 7-year-old is not what you would call an “excellent whisperer” and all of these people trying to attend classes online or launch virtual playdates while I TRY to work, creates a daily tug-of-war.
Along with the noise and the laundry and the family disagreements, something else is mounting, my stress level. Yes, I have a raging case of anxiety and I am apparently not alone. NO greater change has impacted the workplace, or daily life for that matter, as quickly as COVID19.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it economic and financial pressure, fear about our health and the health of our loved ones, wrapped in a cloak of uncertainty of when this will be over. It is no wonder we are all stressed. In a recent ABC News/Washington Post survey, it was reported that 70% of people were experiencing stress or anxiety as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
A 2016 study shows that uncertainty produces a much higher degree of anxiety than knowing something bad is definitely about to happen. A team of researchers from the University of London, led by Neurologist Dr. Archey O. de Berker, studied the relationship between uncertainty and stress. The volunteers in their experiment played a computer game requiring them to overturn rocks that might have snakes hidden under them. If a snake appeared, a painful electric shock was delivered. The participants were motivated to figure out which rocks hid the snakes. But the volunteers had trouble learning the habits of the snakes because the researchers made sure the level of uncertainty or risk fluctuated.
The researchers tracked stress through several physiological measures, including skin conductance and pupil dilation. But they required their participants to report on how stressed they were feeling from moment to moment.
The main finding was that all measures of stress, both subjective and objective, maxed out when uncertainty was highest. When people had absolutely no clue whether they were about to receive a shock, their stress peaked. Other studies also uncovered a link between uncertainty and stress, but never with such precision. The study showed that participants were actually less stressed knowing they would be shocked then not knowing. So, the uncertainty proved worse than the known impending pain.
It connects to dopamine, according to Berker. We know that addicts have a hard time resisting temptation because drug-related cues send dopamine rushing up to the striatum in our brain, known as our “reward center”. But the striatum isn’t just about reward. It not only propels behavior toward positive outcomes; it also propels behavior away from negative outcomes – punishments and aversive consequences. It also predicts the odds of those consequences. And it sets off alarm bells in your system when those odds approach 50%.
Now the striatum is flooded with dopamine and its job description requires it to do something, anything, to improve those odds. In trying to trigger some corrective action, it activates the sympathetic nervous system – the fight or flight system – which opens sweat glands, dilates pupils, and energizes the action-oriented muscles throughout the body.
These researchers reported a secondary finding that puts some icing on the evolutionary cake. The participants whose stress response mirrored actual (not imaginary) levels of uncertainty performed best on the task. In other words, their sensitivity to uncertainty gave them an edge when predicting which rocks to avoid, even though they could not avoid shocks in the long run. When they learned to control the shock, their stress lowered.
We value control above all our other capacities. We admire others who are in control, and we congratulate ourselves for “taking control”, so when control of our lives and daily schedules are taken from us, anxiety spikes. It is human nature as the research suggests.
Understanding why I am stressed calms me a little. I am still not in control, but now I know that my body just does this when things are uncertain. Can I mediate the response to being out of control during this pandemic? Well, the answer is MAYBE.
According to Professor of Psychology from McGill University, Tina Montreuil, some of us may have a harder time coping than others. The ability to accept a loss of control is easier for some people than others. You may find that if you are a manager or a leader at your company, it is more difficult for you.
The feeling of lack of control may make you feel uncertain, paranoid and that may lead to a desire to micro-manage the tasks you assign to your team. Resist the urge.
“You just have to let go,” says Montreuil. This may be easier said than done, but without taking this cognitive step, it is harder to adopt behaviors and self-care measures that can not only help you cope, but help you keep up your teams’ spirit.
But more than that, experts say you need to let go to succeed remotely. According to Mark Murphy, NY Times Best Seller of five leadership books and founder of LeadershipIQ.com, “Trust, respect and flexibility” are the three keys to good management in this difficult time.
Murphy warns that in an uncertain time it is critical to keep a cool head, let them know you understand and be frank about the state of your state. Keeping your employees informed shows respect and keeping your cool will help keep theirs.
If you feel anxiety or feel like one of your employees need help, there are resources available to help. Make sure to reach out, be a good listener and lead by example.
All of that said, and even with stress and anxiety at its peak in my household, I still know I am lucky. My family is healthy so far. We have a home and resources and I have my job. Many people have much more challenging situations and are in much greater danger.
Healthcare workers for instance are constantly in harm’s way and yet tasked with helping the rest of us. But every situation is relative to our own experience and regardless of the circumstances, almost everyone is experiencing some level of anxiety at this unprecedented time.
Understanding that the feeling is universal and that we are not alone is a good place to begin. Carving out ways to be kind to ourselves and those around us is a path forward. This time will pass. Between now and then, all we can do is try not to let stress and anxiety take control.
4MedPlus/4ProPlus will be providing a webinar workshop for leaders to certify in Managing Anxiety in the Workplace on May 12, 2020. Click this link to learn more.
We also offer self-paced anxiety/stress management training programs for all workers in our online training catalogs:
1) For Managers: Managing Workplace Anxiety
2) For Healthcare Managers: Managing Healthcare Workplace Anxiety
3) For individuals: Stress Management Skills Proficiency