With Belgium in the European top 3 for COVID-19 related deaths per 100,000 inhabitants and with a second lockdown freshly instated, it’s safe to say that, as a nation, we’re on high alert. It’s also safe to say that these last eight months have had their impact on our mental wellbeing. We caught up with past ABRA keynote speaker Willemijn van Dommelen of PRR Consultancy to find out how we can fortify our mental resilience in times of COVID.
“A snapshot survey showed 42% of respondents were unable to motivate themselves to work from home and 53% felt employers weren’t clearly communicating their expectations.”
“It has hit in waves,” says Willemijn. “In March we were blindsided; suddenly this strange and scary new virus had us sheltering in place, adjusting to life in lockdown. You could feel the unrest and insecurity, but we were all in it together. Then life started picking up again. Companies started reboarding staff, making plans for how many people from which teams could come into work on what days. Everybody had their own system. We started feeling positive again. Antwerp went through a lockdown-light in August, but it was effective and we were confident.”
Impact of Restrictions on Wellbeing
Summer may have provided some temporary relief, but face masks, social bubbles and work-from-home or hybrid regimes are firmly back in place again as confirmed cases of the novel corona virus continue to rise. Nobody will deny the importance of human contact and personal interaction for our mental wellbeing, so what effect can we expect these measures to have on us?
“We offered companies a free mental resilience scan earlier this spring to see how people were faring under the lockdown. It was a small-scale study, but the results were highly disconcerting: 42% of respondents were unable to motivate themselves to work from home and 53% felt employers weren’t clearly communicating their expectations. A powerful mix of stressors piled on top of personal, economic and financial insecurities.”
“Every industry has been impacted, and people are feeling under pressure, albeit for different reasons. Temporary workers don’t know if contracts will be renewed. The hospitality and event sectors are struggling to keep their heads above water. Health care workers have barely had time to catch their breath before this second wave hit. We have nowhere near reached the end of the road and I expect more people will start suffering in silence as the months roll on.”
Singles Suffer the Most
“That being said, we have noticed that singles suffer the most,” Willemijn continues. “Families are challenged to effectively work from home whilst teaching the kids and running a household all at the same time, but at least you have someone to hold on to when things get on top of you. Singles rely on colleagues and friends for social cohesion. They really miss the workplace and descend into depression much quicker.”
Getting up every day, getting dressed and motivating yourself to stay focused isn’t always easy. You can cope with the loneliness for a while, but distractions lie at every turn. You do a quick lap with the vacuum cleaner whilst waiting for the washing machine to finish its spin cycle, but then get distracted by something else and before you know it, half the day is gone. You might as well just call it a day and settle in for some Netflix. The lack of structure leads to feelings of guilt and the negative emotional spiral can be crippling believes Willemijn. Prof. Dr. Elke Van Hoof, Expert in the Superior Health Council of Belgium, has been quoted as saying a tsunami of corona burnouts is heading our way. But is it burnout, depression or something else altogether?
Burnout or Depression?
“Great question. Only time will tell I guess, but I personally believe the balance is tilting towards depression. We are social beings and feeling a person’s touch, whether through a handshake or a hug, is a basic human need. Social bonding releases oxytocin (the happy hormone) and without it our cortisol (the stress hormone) levels skyrocket. We can manage short periods of stress (which trigger our natural fight-or-flight response), but when the balance shifts too far in one direction, the body starts sending out distress signals: headaches, a sore neck, heavy legs, tingling in the arm. All symptoms associated with a burnout. But I don’t believe that we should automatically view our body’s response to the stress of adapting to this ‘new normal’ – whatever that might be – as a burnout.”
“We are living through stressful times, and yes, of course work plays a big role. We spend eight hours a day at work, but now we’re working from home and are expected to stay close to home, if not at home, as much as possible. So where can we find the rest and relaxation we need to switch off and give our brains a break? Quite literally, today’s societal disruptions are disrupting our brains and with that, our mental wellbeing.”
A positive mindset can help a great deal of course, but what if you’re naturally prone to worry? Hourly news updates of spiking rates and overrun hospitals, opposing voices on social media and in the news; none of it helps ease the unquiet mind. Even the most resilient amongst us are susceptible to moments of panic confesses Willemijn.
“Quite literally, today’s societal disruptions are disrupting our brains and with that, our mental wellbeing.”
Daily Sources of Stress
“Just recently I was forced to miss my niece’s eighteenth birthday. I’d woken up with a bit of a cough and a light fever and convinced myself it was corona. My dad is a high-risk profile and the whole family was due to meet. From making an appointment with my GP to getting my test results back took ten days. Ten days that I spent making excuses so as to not worry my family, worrying about whom I’d seen in the two preceding weeks, worrying about their families, friends and colleagues. In the end I got the all-clear from the doctor, but those ten days of waiting were incredibly stressful and I ended up missing my niece’s birthday party, which made me feel sad too.”
“Companies are seeing similar worries coming from their employees and find themselves navigating tricky situations on a daily basis. A client’s key sales person had recently returned from honeymoon and the team demanded he got tested before returning to work. So on the one hand we have an entire team flat-out refusing to work with a colleague, and on the other we have our honeymooner, who has no way of getting tested on a Sunday evening and is forced to miss an important meeting. How do you manage this? What’s your company policy going to be? It’s just one of the infinite ways in which COVID-19 not only impacts how we work together, but how we treat each other too.”
“Because let’s be very clear: everything we do right now is a source of stress. Work from home? It brings stress into your safe haven. Reboarding? Places stress on teams and management alike. Going to the shops? Stressful stuff because who last touched that keypad? It begins the moment we get out of bed and you can quite easily drive yourself nuts worrying.”
Soothing the Unquiet Mind
What then is the solution? Do we allow ourselves a five-minute freak-out in the morning and then just get on with things? Ping an elastic band on our wrists every time we catch ourselves spiralling? How do we stop worry getting the better of us? And how can companies instil trust in both teams and process?
“Communication is key,” suggests Willemijn. “Organisations have to be clear about what they expect from their employees and how these expectations – and measures – will be managed. Are you going for a hybrid setup or is everyone WFH until further notice? How long is this likely to last, and what is guiding your decision making? How will you be reboarding people? What kind of support can team members expect?”
“We’ve created an entire series of webinars for our clients as individual employees have different needs. Everything from online yoga classes to brain training sessions to strengthen mental resilience has proven to be hugely popular. But you can’t just rely on tools. Organisations also need to make sure there is room for informal conversations, like you’d normally have while waiting for the kettle to boil. You need to nourish social cohesion, and if that means a weekly online coffee hour or creating a buddy programme where people check in with one another, then that’s what you need to introduce.”
“Bring structure to your day and alternate between the things that give you energy and those that cost energy.”
Bring Positivity Back
“Personally, I’ve stopped watching the news. There’s no point, it just makes you worry more. I receive a morning push message with the latest statistics. I look at it and then delete it. Tune out the bad news to maintain a positive mindset. Similarly, when I watch a movie or a series, I only watch nice things. Laughter helps release endorphins so watch a good comedy or call a friend and get silly together. I also love watching things that uplift and inspire me, such as TED talks or webinars, and listen to podcasts that put me in a positive mindset.”
“Take yourself out of your comfort zone. You live at home, work from home, maybe the kids are home too, as well as your partner. Even if you have more time now that the daily commute has fallen away, you shouldn’t be using that time to work more. Instead, challenge yourself to do or learn something new. I’ve started studying to become a neuropsychologist. Why not? I have time now. There are so many free apps and classes to be found online. Learn yoga, start doing pilates, lift some bags of sugar for weights… Exercise is essential to a healthy body and mind and there’s so much you can do at home.”
“Card games such as memory are a super simple but effective way of training your brain and keeping concentration and memory skills on point. Whether it’s an online game of solitary or a board game with the family, playing games stops you worrying about things you can’t control. It’s one of the few good things to have come out of all this: people are playing games again and spending more quality time together. Also be sure to stay in touch with the people you care about. Schedule weekly FaceTime or Zoom chats with loved ones near and far.”
“If you’re going to be spending this much time at home, make it nice. Get a floral subscription – I used to get flowers delivered every other week, but have now upgraded it to weekly as fresh flowers really bring me joy – light some candles every evening, read a book, dig in your garden, paint the wall that’s been irritating you for so long, do the things that make you feel good about your environment.”
“Find some time to meditate every day, or even easier: find a theta wave playlist that works for you. Theta waves are hertz waves and the ‘pure’ stuff sounds awful, but some YouTube playlists are almost music-like. Where alpha waves energise, theta waves soothe the brain and relax you. Just stick on your headphones and sit back for twenty minutes or so before you go to bed. It works wonders. You can put it on your speakers while you cook or do yoga, but to get the full benefit, use headphones. Just don’t put it on in the car or you might just doze off,” laughs Willemijn.
“Finally, and perhaps most importantly, bring structure into your daily routine. It’s all good and well adding all these new things into your day, but you need to maintain balance. I’ve used Excel to make a weekly schedule for myself that alternates between the things that give me energy and those that cost energy. Mornings are for studying, then I exercise before doing an online intake or coaching session, after which I meditate. Continuously switch between relaxation and effort, and block off enough time for each in your daily planner.”
Eight Top Tips
• Stop watching the news, a daily push message is enough to keep you updated;
• Watch things that uplift, inspire and make you smile;
• Step out of your comfort zone and learn something new;
• Exercise daily and play games to refocus your mind;
• Stay in touch with your loved ones;
• Create a warm and happy home environment;
• Quiet your mind through meditation or theta waves;
• Bring structure into your day and alternate between effort and energy.
Visit www.pinkrebelrevolution.com for more information on recovering from burnout and for free webinars to help you strengthen your mental resilience.