28 April 2020

The New Normal: How Does It Make You Feel?

Whether you are still doing the daily commute or you’re working from home – there is no reason to pretend that things are going back to normal any time soon. They are not. Our managers and our employees are facing new problems arising from this “new normal” and it can be exhausting for everyone. Do not underestimate the toll that it is taking on your mental health.

It’s okay to feel stressed and anxious right now. It’s totally understandable if you are feeling worried, tired, or uncertain about the future. Just look at what we have had to deal with since the start of the coronavirus pandemic: concern for health and the health of our family and friends, concern for our jobs, or even the actual loss of work, sudden financial instability, social distancing and self-isolation leading to loneliness and cabin fever, change in routine and change in the way we work. It’s a long list.

Sure, we at Siemens are an innovative bunch, but that does not mean things come easy. The day before a national lockdown began in South Africa a month ago, I learned what an Anxiety Cycle was. My wife, who could now no longer work, got physically ill from stress and panic, which caused further anxiety, which, in-turn, created additional physical discomfort. And those feelings of panic and anxiety are contagious.

We weren’t sure what to do. I had been already working from home for a few days, and outside seemed to be one big panic over the looming apocalypse. Is this migraine COVID-19? Do we see a doctor? Do we need to make an appointment now? How do I calm down? Only when we spoke to friends who revealed to be suffering from the same crippling anxiety did we come to accept the uncertainty and the change ahead of us.

The point is that right now is the time to talk to each other. Employees and employers to be mindful of possible psychological damage the “new normal” may bring, and to communicate openly to ensure that everyone gets the support they then need during this unprecedented time. Remember that, while everyone is not experiencing the pandemic and its aftermath in the same way, everyone is experiencing something:

The New Workplace

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 81% of the global workforce of 3.3 billion people have had their workplace fully or partially closed. Many have lost their employment permanently, while others are forced to continue in a diminished capacity and are barely scraping by. Of all my friends in South Africa, mostly made up of 30-something couples with a toddler or two, I don’t know of a single household that has not had their livelihoods cut in half. No other burden can cause stress and depression like a financial one.

Many people have been fortunate enough to be a part of what is arguably the world’s biggest work-from-home experiment. But this is not without significant threats to well-being either.

Siemens EHS notes that many employees who feel fortunate enough to continue working and can work from home might be reluctant to bring up health and safety issues. These issues include the need for more breaks for exercise to make up for the lack of mobility, working longer hours as home and office blur into one and housekeeping distractions spring up, struggling over workstations and equipment, and feeling isolated due to leaving the house far less often.

While these things might not seem like high risk issues right away, eventually they can have a serious effect on mental well-being and overall health. Leaders and managers need to develop trust within their teams, and we must be transparent and open about our needs during this transition. With all these changes, it’s important to have the support of the people we know, and that know us.

One of my teammates checked up on me recently out of the blue, just to see if I was okay. She said that I didn’t seem like myself on a team call, and I hadn’t used emojis or GIFs on our Slack channel, and that it was unlike me. She was right, of course, and that check-up was enough to lift my spirits and provide some much-needed motivation.

Stay Positive, Stay Healthy

COVID-19 will remain a major threat to global health for a while before a vaccine becomes available and herd immunity comes into effect. We need to manage it, but we need to move forward as well. As societal restrictions are lifted, it’s certainly not going to be business as usual and the awareness of others will remain.

“It is semi-normal,” Bill Gates recently wrote on his website. “People can go out, but not as often, and not to crowded places. Picture restaurants that only seat people at every other table, and airplanes where every middle seat is empty. Schools are open, but you can’t fill a stadium with 70,000 people. People are working some and spending some of their earnings, but not as much as they were before the pandemic. In short, times are abnormal.”

The unfolding abnormality, the “new normal,” is changing the way we interact with others and how we do things, at work and at home. Recently, I walked past a friend of over 15 years in the supermarket three times before we recognized each other beneath our masks! While some of these changes are just a matter of “getting used to it,” others can and will introduce risks to our well-being. We don’t know what could happen next, but we can develop a safe environment for our friends and colleagues to be able to speak up on their psychological health. Now more than ever, check on your friends.

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