by Carly Webster
There are a few ‘c-words’ that are universally disliked, but ‘COVID’ has definitely become the frontrunner. Why? Well, apart from the fact that COVID stinks, it’s taken this crisis for us to learn some very human lessons. Whether in my work with SuperFriend in workplace mental health, my role with the AFL and Richmond Football Club, or even coaching a group of under-19 state netball players, I have learnt a few things we all share, and it all comes down to our biology. Understanding why we act the way we do can help us regain control in a very uncertain time, also providing comfort, and perhaps even meaning.
1. Adaptability is your best friend
Not many humans are comfortable with change, which is one of the reasons why the ongoing uncertainty and upheaval from COVID has been so unsettling. Whether it’s job loss, business and school closure, cancelled holidays, being disconnected from those we love or weekend sport being put on hold, it’s a lot of change to process at once. Why does adaptability matter? Being adaptable means being creative and flexible in the face of new situations. And the fact is that no one’s future was ever certain, even before the pandemic. Knowing that uncertainty is a normal part of life can help us to see possibilities in the face of change, rather than just discomfort and fear.
A myth that is worth busting is that adaptability is a ‘fixed’ personality trait… it’s not! We can all cultivate adaptability. One of the best and simplest ways to do this is through routine, but not by planning too far ahead. Plan one step at a time, letting go of the need to plan from A-Z, and just start with A-B—then re-assess. This can help us feel more confident, by achieving short-term goals and having what we need to get to the next point after that.
2. Collective grief is real, and comparison is crushing
The term ‘collective grief’ has been doing the rounds lately. We are grieving loss of normalcy, as well as ‘anticipatory grief’, meaning we are waiting for something bad to happen. Both have a profound impact on how we feel and behave, often triggering sadness and fear.
The thing about grief is that it is not a linear process. We will bounce between the difference stages as each day goes by, causing a rollercoaster of emotions. Two of the most important stages—acceptance and meaning—hold real power and can help us get some control back. We can do this by not comparing or minimising our grief. The term ‘there is always somebody worse off’ is well-meant, but can cause us to minimise our own issues and avoid dealing with them. So, whether your grief is a job loss, or missing out on important milestones or celebrations, allow yourself to feel your feelings of anger, hurt and sadness, and don’t compare your experience to anyone else’s. This process will also help highlight the things that are genuinely important to you, helping you see what your priorities are.
3. Ditch the crystal ball
Humans crave predictability and hate uncertainty. When things are uncertain, we don’t feel safe. This is when our stress response (fight, flight and freeze) kicks in. This stress response is important, but it’s only meant to be a short-term, temporary state. COVID, however, has us living in a constant state of fight, flight and freeze and it’s hard, to say the least! By understanding that this is a normal, biological response and not a conscious decision, it is much easier to be gentle with ourselves and others, especially if you’re seeing uncharacteristic behaviours.
4. Grow, grow, grow
Our resilience is heavily dependent on our mindset about choice and control. When something bad happens, we can choose to be broken by it and stuck in the situation (a fixed mindset) or we can choose to feel it, grow from it and bounce forward (growth mindset).
This has come up a lot recently in my work in the AFL NAB under 18 competition. In many conversations with these boys hoping to play AFL as their life ambition, they are finding that they feel robbed, that they have lost their opportunity even though they know that in 2021 they’ll get another chance. I could split these boys into two groups, one is sitting at home ruminating about the lost season and abandoning their training plans, the others have taken their time to grieve and have shifted their mindset to what’s in their control – planning in the short term, training as best they can under the circumstances and focusing on their mental health to have the peace of mind they did everything within their control to reach their goal. Catch yourself in those moments when you’re annoyed by things out of your control, and try consciously pivoting your thoughts to what you can control. This can be so positive for our wellbeing.
5. Take the pressure down
This one is simple. Give yourself and everyone else a break. Most people are struggling right now, but most are also doing their best. None of us has navigated a pandemic before. Easing your expectations is so important, at work in particular. We are encouraging organisations to take some pressure off their staff by focusing on business-critical activities, and reducing pressure where possible. Last week I worked with a senior manager of a large Government organisation who sat down with every leader in the business and came up with a plan until the end of 2020 to strip back what’s expected from every single staff member. I was overjoyed by their commitment!
This applies at home, school, sport and wherever your other commitments are, too. To expect the same output, productivity, attitude and behaviour from ourselves and others during COVID is just not reasonable. A great way to do this is to ask ‘what do you need right now?’ I recently asked my netball squad ‘do you need space or do you want to keep training?’ The gratitude they expressed shocked me. Just having some flexibility and choice was a huge plus for these players who had been training their butts off with no reward for months. What shocked me more was that 98% of the squad chose to keep training. What can I give them in return? No pressure and no expectations. Easy done!
6. Write a ‘more vs less’ list
One of the very few benefits of the second wave is that we’ve done this before. When we’ve been somewhere before we’re more likely to be aware of the things that do and don’t work. A simple way to keep yourself accountable is a ‘more vs less’ list. Instead of setting unachievable goals, create a list of actions that made you feel good or worked for you last time (more) and those that didn’t serve you well and detracted from your wellbeing (less). The aim is to write these things down, commit to them, action them daily and keep things simple.
For me the days that I exercised, played with my dog and Facetimed my nieces and nephew were my best days, so these things are now my non-negotiables. On the flip side, staying up way too late and being on first name basis with takeaway delivery drivers did not serve me well, so you guessed it, those things are on my less list. It is all about being conscious of the things that enhance and detract from your wellbeing and valuing yourself enough to commit to these as part of your routine, because staying well doesn’t just magically happen.
7. Keep an eye on your pride
There are two kinds of masks being worn during COVID. Firstly, our medical masks to stop spreading the virus, and secondly, the ones that hide our vulnerability. Somewhere along the way we thought we all needed to say we are coping fine and not show the impact the pandemic is having on us personally and professionally. But a lesson that I have learnt is that we all have a responsibility to reduce the stigma around mental health. The best way to do this is by putting our hand up and being real in those moments where we are not doing too well.
Being a leader doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers or have all your stuff together constantly. No one does! The more real and authentic you are, the better you will be for others and for yourself.
8. We love our ‘frolleagues’ and coffee shop dudes more than we ever realised
Who would have thought that we’d miss that lady in the office who swears at the printer when it gets a paper jam, or the guy that leaves manky bits of sugar on the bench top after making his tea? COVID has given us one of the most important lessons I think we can learn; relationships are so important, and material stuff really doesn’t matter that much. We are social creatures and we need connections to be healthy.
You probably have someone in mind that you are missing right now, whether it’s your work wife, your teammates, your best mate or your family. So, this gives you two lessons for the price of one. If connecting with people hasn’t been high on your priority list, bump it up your list. Second, hold onto this when the world recalibrates. Nothing beats having people in your life that lift you up, and nothing beats a hug to release a nice big dose of feel good hormones (there’s science behind it, I promise). These simple things really matter.
Whether you choose to take or leave these tips, remember that they’re not just relevant during COVID. They may be transformative in helping cope with the present, but also in growing for the future.