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Stressed employee

Exploring and confronting the stress of uncertain change

“Working from home” is the current ‘in thing’, though it may not be wholly new to some. At MDA Training, many consultants have been doing so for years, and this work profile is reflected nationally as well. But many others this week have had change forced upon them and are home-working for the first time, struggling to come to terms with boundaries, distractions, remoteness and the impact of change.

In isolation, these issues are not hard to understand and react to – they are topic areas that appear in many of our courses on management, leadership and handling change. But taken together, some might find their changed working day quite uncomfortable, and as the shock and resistance elements fade, are now trying to explore different ways of handling uncertainty in their new-look workspaces.

This article explores a handful of hints and tips that can address some of the stresses of dealing with uncertainty and change. As mentioned, many of the ideas come from our work with managers and leaders, in areas like EQ and handing change within the workplace. And although the working environment for many has now changed, those same ideas remain. It is time to put the theory of building emotional resilience into practice. The article breaks these ideas into four themes:

It’s good to talk. But listen to yourself. And others

Offices – like cities – can be some of the most lonely of places: full of people, yet working alone. Even the name “self-isolation” conjures a sense of gloom, loneliness and despair. And yet even this shall pass. The key is to look after yourself, ask for advice – from yourself and others – and listen. Self-isolation should not be isolating: you have your phone and your laptop. So talk, especially to those whom you trust. One of the most frequent requests in our village from older residents at present is for someone to ring them and just talk and listen: it is good for the soul, and it is good for your inner voice that says you are going through this alone.

The frustration is that our mind plays games with us all of the time. We talk to ourselves, convincing ourselves that everything is really bad. And sometimes the black dog takes us into places that are not good for ourselves or others. And yet we all know the impact an unexpected call, a smile, or a cheery wave, can have on our emotional state and the raising of spirits. That call could be yours. Or it could be a conversation that leads to a further act of random kindness which lifts two souls. But also do not deny the power of self-care: making yourself look or feel good (and telling yourself that), or finding a daily anchor – a task, mantra or activity – that gives you pleasure, quietens your mind, and brings that dog to heel.

Only do the things only you can do

I picked this point up from one of the busiest people that I have met. In context, it was about time management, but it applies equally to emotional baggage which distracts attention, fills your head, and clouds your judgement. The problem with change is that people no longer feel in control. It is this loss of control that is summed up in “people do not mind change: but they do mind being changed”. Being unable to control your actions – whether it be because you are lost, in unfamiliar surroundings, or stuck at home – leads to decisions that you are not used to making. And non-habitual decisions under uncertainty are always stressful.

Regular news updates don’t help: they only emphasise the sense of less control still, especially when sensationalising issues for the sake of a good story. Cut down on them. And whether looking at social networks or traditional news channels, always ask yourself: what is the objectively verifiable truth in this story? And what are the more sensationalised alternative facts that make a story emotionally personal to me? If it is bad, and it seems personal, it feels uncontrollable. Yet in reality, you should only concentrate on controlling the things you are capable of controlling, and stop thinking too much on the issues that influence you but cannot be controlled. I cannot stop the journey of COVID-19 across the globe, alarming though that is. But I can stay at home and wash my hands thoroughly with soap for 20 seconds. Uncertainty is not ideal, but it is tolerable once you realise that you should only plan your way on those areas that you can control, and don’t sweat the things that you can’t.

What’s the worst that can happen?

There’s a lovely line in Finding Nemo where Dory challenges Marlin’s desire not to let anything happen to Nemo. Our brains have a natural risk-averse bias which, combined with the fear of the unknown, means we often overplay risk and the fear of failure. We look back, full of delusional rose-tinted hindsight, to a time when everything worked as planned (it never was so), and despair at the now bleak, uncertain future. And yet bad things, while feeling bad, don’t happen all of the time, so don’t beat yourself – or others – up about them: the bark is often worse than the bite. Your anxieties will feel very real: but don’t judge your feelings or those of the people around you. Emotional reactions and tensions over the next few months will run high – missed life experiences, exams, holidays, weddings. But it is our reaction to those feelings rather than the feelings themselves that we need to master and control. In the cold, objective light of day, things are rarely as bad as they feel in the moment.

One way to be kinder on yourself is to pause and reflect on what has gone well as a result of recent events. Write down just two things that you are proud of or that have made you feel great over the past few days. Think about them. Capture that feeling of mastery and success. Let the dopamine and serotonin flow in your body as your mood lightens, and you can see the possibilities. Now look again at that impossible challenge. And see a way through. On a recent change programme, we discussed the impact of micro-behaviours: not massive external changes that suddenly make everything go great. However, tiny variations in habits and leadership which are small and risk-controlled, and yet collectively have the power to change behaviours and organisations. Sometimes it feels easier and better to sweat the small stuff – only a little.

Seize the day

If, when this is all over, and the football stadiums are full, bars are busy, and we are back to shaking hands and not elbows, someone says to you “what new skill did you learn in the months of time you had, stuck at home, looking out of your window?”, how would you reply? The truth is, we may never (I hope) have such an opportunity in our working lifetimes to sit at home for weeks on end looking for things to do. What will you do? Learn Python? Learn to touch-type? Start playing an instrument? Lose some weight or get fit? Tidy the clothes pile? Paint the kitchen? Try a new language or a new cooking technique? Maybe even watch every episode of GoT back to back (this is certainly the time I have been promising to watch every episode of Breaking Bad, but just limited to one or two a day)? The opportunities to try something new in the extra time we all now have are endless. Carpe Diem.

For my part, I want to become more of an expert on Solvency II. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I suspect, but I don’t normally have the time. And now there seems too much of it. Every. Day. And so much free, on-line information out there at the same time. So, what is holding you back? What is stopping you, in the comfort of your own home (because let’s face it, you won’t be leaving it any time soon) from trying out something new, to develop an interest in something very different, to push the boundaries of what you know to the advantage of your future self? Even if it is about Solvency II. Wouldn’t it be great to return to the office a bit like a (less extreme version of) Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, with a new skill that you can use for life to make your workplace, or your daily life, just a little bit richer?

Conclusion

These are uncertain times, and never have so many adjectives – “exceptional”, “extraordinary”, “unusual” – felt so appropriate. Many people’s lives will be changed in ways they could not have imagined a few weeks ago. But we can and will get through this, all perhaps a little more aware of what is really important in time spent with families, a hug from a loved one, or a greeting from a stranger.

Strangely, I think one societal outcome from all of this is that it will speed up the principle and practice of remote working for everyone. Like many organisations, our local District Council has engaged on a WorkSmart programme that changes ways of working and dealing with members of the public, and ensuring the council is fit for purpose for the next 20 years. As well as new technology and office spaces, this involves a fundamental shift in agile and remote working practices, which are changing the nature both of the workplace and the work carried on there. As a result of COVID-19 just about all Council staff are now working from home, and many appear to be thoroughly enjoying the experience, with increases in workflow and work-rate as a result. A shift that was going to happen over ten years is now happening in less than two weeks. And that change now might become the new norm.

And I suspect another outcome is that people may become more attuned to their inner thoughts and feelings – a little more open to the company, ideas, and opinions of others. And in applying some of the ideas and thoughts above, I think we can also be a little more resilient and less stressed in handling the challenge of change and uncertainty.

Keep safe: keep connected: keep well.

#Communication #COVID-19 #remote working #Wellbeing

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