New Year’s Eve was quiet at our house, as I am sure it was for many of you around the world. 2020 was an unexpected and extraordinary year in our lives. We learnt new ways of working, living and relating. The virtual world presented us with innumerable possibilities from home schooling to connecting with friends and family in a way that we were not used to. The year also brought with it catastrophe for many who lost loved ones. As the sun set on 2020, I looked forward to a new dawn, a new year with hope. A vaccine for the virus was on the horizon for us here in the UK. This meant freedom, emotionally and physically, from the confinement that the previous year had brought us.
However, this hope was short lived. On the night of the 4th of January when the UK government announced that we were going back into a national lockdown I found myself in the depths of despair. Colleagues and friends around me were all struggling with the news. A number of people I spoke to over the next few days described feeling overwhelmed and said that the announcement had caused them to become very distressed. When I considered my own circumstances though, nothing had really changed. Yes, home-schooling was back on the cards, but we had dealt with it, pretty effectively if I may add, during the first lockdown. We had pretty much mastered the art of working from home and juggling multiple priorities. We knew the drill; we were used to what had just been announced. So, why then were some of us feeling so overwhelmed?
Psychologists studying depression in the early 1970’s found that the feelings of a lack of control over difficult events contributes to this. They called this idea ‘learned helplessness’. Further research in neuroscience has also shown a link between the two. Over the last year we have been in and out of lockdown now a few times. Here in the UK, we have been in a tier system and then even these have changed. The virus has mutated and now we find that the new strain is far more transmissible that the original. Over a sustained period of the year, we have had one event after another impact us and over which we have had little or no control. Whilst our government and governments around the world are doing the best they can under the circumstances, there is a need to constantly re-evaluate and change messages due to the nature of the evolving circumstance. And we are subject to fast changing circumstances that are completely out of our control.
This means that the only thing that is certain is uncertainty.
It was like we had run a marathon over 2020 and thought we had crossed the finish line as we marked the end of the year. But, with the new year, just as we thought we reached the finish line, we were now being asked to run again. Many of us are drained, we are tired, and our batteries are almost empty. It makes it unfathomable that we need to do this all over again.
I have seen examples of learned helplessness play out in organisational settings as well. This happens in times of great change or restructuring, when employees feel that things are happening to them that is out of their control. I have seen teams where productivity has taken a hit and stress levels are at their highest. Individuals get highly anxious and despondent which has an impact on their morale.
So, what can we do about this? I offer some pointers for individuals and for leaders.
It would be trite of me to say that the end is in sight because we don’t know this for sure and the goal posts may change again. Many of us are cued to expect more change as that is what we are becoming used to. And, as this is out of our control, the risk of feeling helpless is high.
Individuals can be inoculated against the perception that events are out of their control. This can be done by increasing their awareness of past experiences, when they were able to affect a desired outcome.
Even though we are in another wave of the virus, another uncontrollable event that has impacted us, by reframing our response to the event, we can take appropriate actions that can help us cope. Perhaps this episode seems more daunting to some because we are reminded of the pain of the last one. Reflecting on what helped us cope in the previous chapter of this pandemic, what support structures we accessed and how we dealt with our circumstances will reveal our coping mechanisms and what got us through this the first time around.
As leaders in organisations, we must create spaces for our teams to engage in reflective conversations. Whilst we are very connected in the virtual world professionally, we are at the same time very disconnected personally. If you find people are becoming overwhelmed, create spaces away from task for teams to come together and connect. Developing these relationships will be paramount in these times.
Communicate with your teams regularly both formally and informally. Update them constantly in order to create more awareness around the developing situation. Let them tell you when you are overcommunicating.
Let them choose; if there are choices that individuals can make in terms of the work or the world around them, create opportunities for this. It will enable a feeling of control in a world where there seems to be so little of it.
And, finally, make sure there is enough space for you as leaders to take care of yourself. As they say on aircrafts, make sure you have the oxygen mask on first. If your batteries are depleted, you will have very little to give your team.
So, whilst we are all still running what seems to be an unending marathon, we must remember to draw upon our successes of the past to guide us in the present. After all, we cannot really predict or control what will happen in the future.