It’s been two years since COVID-19 changed the way we live, work, and think about the world and all that time we’ve been in a constant state of flux, now commonly referred to as ‘pandemic flux syndrome’. After two years of constant change, now is the time for reflection: what’s changed?
Consider your daily life; your ways of working; your physical and mental health; your aspirations and your frustrations. For many of us, our lives now look and feel very different to our lives before COVID, yet we’re still living in a state of flux. We’re wondering when we’ll next be able to see friends and family or whether the holiday we’ve booked will go ahead, all whilst we’re oscillating between working in the office and working from the kitchen table; waving the kids off to school and being a home-educator. But somehow, despite spending more and more time at home, we’re exhausted.
So, what’s going on with the pandemic flux syndrome?
The wonderful Amy Cuddy, amongst other psychologists, has helped us to understand this phenomenon. Amy talks about a fantastic term called ‘surge capacity’.
Our minds and bodies have a super-hero ability that kicks into action during an emergency (like a worldwide pandemic and house arrest, for example). In these situations, we’re able to use all our resources to survive the external threat. The only problem is that to ‘get through it’ requires massive amounts of energy. This is perfect in the short term, but as we know, the COVID-19 situation is anything but temporary… meaning that all the physical and mental resources we put into coping with the emergency have, at some point over the last two years, depleted — leaving many of us, quite frankly, knackered!
Running out of surge capacity and dealing with our conflicting feelings has led us to a place that many of us have never been to before. Here are some of the ways you might have experienced this for yourself, or seen this in others:
On the one hand, we are optimistic about the future — happy to be emerging from the restrictions that the pandemic placed upon us. We’re excited to do the things we have not been able to do. And yet, there is the sadness that ‘life will never be the same again’; a sense of grief over the old ways of living and working that are changing forever. Along with this is the grief of actual loss, of friends, family and office banter.
Should I be happy? Sad? Exactly how should I be feeling? Survivor Syndrome is a very real thing — feeling wobbly or guilty over being fine and being able to say “I got through it okay” when others didn’t.
Some surprising causes of anxiety can seem quite trivial on the surface, and yet our brains feel them in the same way as something seemingly much more important. Our brains are not very good at distinguishing the difference between ‘big stressors’ and ‘little stressors’… stress is stress in the eyes of our amygdala.
You might be concerned about returning to the office with questions such as “Am I comfortable being in a room with 12 other people for a meeting?”, “Is the busy train commute safe?”, “Will colleagues notice my lockdown weight gain?” All very real and relevant stuff!
Lack of control
For many of us, it feels like our choices have been taken away from us. Wrap all of this up with a general feel of uncertainly and a lack of clarity over what the next 2 years will hold for us and it’s not a surprise that we are ready for a change!
The desire to regain control and take massive action is linked to our desire to escape the current situation. Think of Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons – he’s getting ready to run, his legs are spinning on the spot as he gets ready to ‘ping’ in the right direction. The problem is that our legs are spinning, but we are not sure which direction to run in. This has led to many people making dramatic life changes: house moves, country moves, job moves or leaving work altogether.
These may be positive changes for lots of people, but we can’t ignore that often, the feeling of needing massive change comes from a feeling of “I’m not sure I know what I want… but I know it’s not this.”
So, what can we do about this?
As you read these ideas, first and foremost, think about how you can apply them to yourself. But also, please consider how you can help your colleagues, teams, and other people in your life to best navigate the near and coming future.
1. Understand that how we feel is normal
We’re only human after all. Our brains are amazing, complex machines, and yet, we are reminded that their number one purpose in life is to look after their human. Of course it’s confused, tired, excited, and frustrated at the same time. Of course it’s ready to escape the current situation and find clarity in uncertainty. Most of us are feeling the same as you, so don’t feel guilty about it. Understand it and do something with it.
2. Take control
We’ve established that we are ready for a change, want to have more influence over our lives and be more the driver rather than passenger in our future. Only one person can make that happen. Here are some ideas for how we can take control back:
Stop thinking of working from home as a temporary thing. Instead, re-think your home-working environment and make it permanent. Enough perching at the corner of the kitchen table. If you can (and this is easier for some than others), find a corner or space that you can call work.
Negotiate where and when you work with your boss. Have a frank and open conversation about what is important to you, what concerns you and what amazing ideas you have to work in a way that will bring the best out of you, whilst respecting the workflow and rest of your team. Oh, and if you are a manager yourself – instigate these conversations and remember to really listen with an open mind!
3. Rebuild community
We are social creatures. Our success as humans has a lot to do with the fact that we can get on, share, and collaborate with others. For some of us, the pandemic meant we painfully missed those social connections and can’t wait to get people time back. For others, we’ve quite enjoyed our own company and don’t want to rush back to social events.
Either way, it’s time to re-think our community and connections. Consider the following questions:
- Who have you not been able to spend quality time with that you would like to?
- Who do you feel you have been forced to spend too much time with that you would like to reduce?
- Have most of your work interactions been limited to those people you work directly with?
- How can you stretch out and re-connect with people in your network that are in danger of falling out of your network?
4. Reinvigorate your creativity
Many of the creative ideas we get are sparked by new experiences: meeting new people, seeing new things, doing new stuff. Mixing things up is our opportunity to add sparkle to our thinking, get more innovative and curious about how we work, and design our future. Here are a few ideas:
- Mix up where you work. Even if you are at home, relish opportunities to work from a different room for a few hours, sit outside, do a walking meeting, or try out a co-working space.
- If you are going out and about, try a different route. This could be your journey into the office, or a different direction for your daily dog walk or run.
- Go somewhere new that you have never visited, or revisit places you have missed.
- Talk to different people instead of the same people we have been interacting with for the last two years, embracing people with different views from you.
5. Analyse and improve your old habits
Much of the advice when we moved to working from home was to establish a routine. Great – but is that routine still serving you well? Consider these questions:
- How aware are you of how much sitting down time you are having? There is talk now about how many of us are experiencing the equivalent of a long-haul flight each day as we don’t move enough.
- How much screen time are you having? When you are having down time (a work break, relaxing in the evening, winding down before you sleep), are you still reading, watching, or social media-ing on screens?
- What good habits do you want to keep?
- What bad habits do you want to change?
Our big message here is that if we want to emerge from the fog of the pandemic way of living and pandemic flux syndrome, the best person to help us do that is ourselves. Taking control is the best way to stop feeling helpless and frustrated in this state of flux. Life will continue anyway, so we may as well be the architect of our own life, designing it in the way we want it to be.
And, if you have responsibility for others in your organisation, please encourage the above. Make space for flex, instigate conversations, listen, be open to new ideas, remember that everyone has different needs, be patient and help them to make it happen.
Above all… start with YOU.