• Old Mutual MiNDSPACE: Mandy Collins.

Strategies for coping with anxiety during a pandemic

Coping with a big change is difficult under the best of circumstances; adding Covid-19 and working from home during lockdown into the mix takes stress and anxiety to a whole new level. What can employers do to help their workers develop resilience? And what can employees do to manage their own stress levels?

If ever we needed a change management strategy, it’s now, as the world has ground to a panicked halt in the face of the devastating Covid-19 pandemic. So how do we make the best of this bad situation?

‘I think the key word for all of us is “compassion”,’ says Johannesburg-based burnout and life coach Judy Klipin. ‘We need to be very mindful about what a hard time every single person on the planet is having. No one is escaping the stress and anxiety that fear and uncertainty bring. We’re worrying about what the world will look and feel like when we go back into it, we’re worrying about what our jobs will look like, and if we will even have a job to go back to.’

‘We’re back to worrying about the basic needs on Maslow’s hierarchy.’

Ruth Everson, a leadership and life coach, also from Johannesburg, concurs. ‘The same concerns keep cropping up wherever you look,’ she says. ‘Everyone has concerns around safety and security, food and shelter – we’re back to worrying about the basic needs on Maslow’s hierarchy.’

What employers can do to help their employees

Employees need support from their workplaces, and good communication. ‘Be as transparent, open and honest as possible,’ Klipin advises. ‘Take your employees into your confidence and tell them what decisions are being taken and why. Offer what you can in terms of emotional and structural support. Provide clear communication on what is expected of them during this time, and reduce the uncertainty and unpredictability as much as possible.’

‘Those working from home are in a different workspace,’ Everson points out. ‘They may be working longer hours, and there are more demands being made on them. All of this is bound to have an impact on performance.’

‘Provide clear communication on what is expected, and reduce the uncertainty and unpredictability as much as possible’

‘Your employees are just as scared, worried, stressed, exhausted and overwhelmed as you are,’ adds Klipin. ‘In fact, their stress and feelings of overwhelm may be even greater if their particular family, financial and living situations are adding to it. Be compassionate and understanding and try to come up with solutions together.’

Everson adds that it’s tempting to communicate solely in writing outside of virtual meetings through WhatsApp, email and other forms of written communication. ‘But it’s a good idea for bosses to check in with team members via a personal phone call every couple of days,’ she says, ‘especially when people are on their own.’

What employees can do to help themselves

‘There’s a lot of talk about “the new normal”, and we all need to get a handle on how we will move forward,’ says Everson. ‘What have you learnt that you can carry forward? We’ve all had to dig deep during lockdown. Also, many are reluctant to ask for help, because it makes them vulnerable, but we need to be able to say, “I’m battling with X or Y,” so that we can get the help we need.’

‘Every one of us needs to be honest and compassionate towards themselves, and know that they are not alone,’ says Klipin. ‘It’s important not to get overwhelmed and to burn out, which means making self-care a priority. Be realistic about what you can reasonably expect from yourself with regard to work – it isn’t really reasonable to expect to have eight hours of online meetings every day, and to also get through all your paperwork and admin.

‘Set up and keep to routines: be sure to take a break for lunch and tea every day. Go outside (even if it’s only onto the balcony) and breathe in the fresh air. Not having to sit in traffic twice a day means you gain time, but lose on space to process thoughts and ideas and to change gear from home to work and then again from work to home.’

Everson also points to the importance of taking time to pause. ‘Many people think that if they keep busy they won’t have to think about the difficulties of living and working under lockdown.’ She, too, stresses the importance of finding a quiet space to think, listen to music, have a cup of coffee or get some fresh air.

‘This really is going to be a long march, and we all need to settle into this new abnormal for a while. The sooner we can set up predictable and workable routines, the better,’ says Klipin, ‘but not without being very compassionate – towards ourselves and others.’

‘I think it’s important not to take it personally, while at the same time taking responsibility for what we can, so that we can be as productive as possible and get through it as emotionally and physically robust as possible.'