Fighting the COVID Blues: Advice from Business Research – Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

Posted: May 23, 2020 at 10:45 pm

Life was hard enough for the one-third of Americans who had wrestled with anxiety prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, the disease that has killed almost 100,00 in the United States, left millions unemployed, and socially distanced many people from friends and family is causing fear, isolation, and financial distressa mentally toxic combination for many.

In fact, almost half of adults in the United States, 45 percent, say that worry and stress related to the coronavirus and the resulting economic downturn are hurting their mental health, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

We asked Harvard Business School experts who study well-being to share strategies for coping with this unsettling period to prevent the coronavirus blues from taking a huge toll, both personally and professionally.

You're not going to be a good [business] leader unless you know how to lead yourself, says Arthur C. Brooks, Arthur C. Patterson Faculty Fellow. You're not going to be a good entrepreneur unless you see that your life is your enterprise; your life is your startup.

Heres what Brooks and four other HBS experts recommend:

Focus on the here and now. In a matter of weeks, as the coronavirus rapidly began taking an increasing number of lives and livelihoods, people suddenly felt as if their future became murkier.

When uncertainty and disappointment morph into fear, people often try to gather information that might help them reduce their risksincluding spending hours reading or watching the news.

Rather than ruminating on the virus and replaying possible future outcomes in our minds, its best to let go of the notion that anyone can completely control the COVID-19 fallout and instead focus on today, say Brooks and Leonard A. Schlesinger, the Baker Foundation Professor.

This is such an impermanent state of affairs that we just have to do as best we can, Brooks says.

Make time for introspection. The coronavirus represents a historic inflection point that is likely to forever change us, as did the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Brooks suggests using this period as an opportunity to take stock of your own life. Does your work reflect your values? Have you let some important relationships languish? Did you give up on a dream too soon?

One of the things that I feel is really important is that people not waste this moment, Brooks says. When something causes you to become introspective, that should be a moment and opportunity for intense personal growth.

Indeed, when we focus our energy on our strengths, we feel more authenticand that increases resilience and happiness, improves relationships, and reduces stress, according to research by Francesca Gino, the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration. If we take time to reflect on what were good at and enjoy, we may discover that all the meetings we used to hold in the office sucked up too much time or that a trip to the childrens museum wasnt the key to bringing the family joy.

Rather than fighting for ways to get back to our usual routine or even just waiting for this crisis to end, a better approach is to embrace this time, Gino says. We might find new routines and activities that we appreciate more.

Tap into your inner spark of curiosity. Curiosity is critical to learning, innovation, and even higher levels of life satisfaction, so getting inquisitive could help us now. Preliminary results of a study Gino conducted during the coronavirus crisis shows that people with a heightened sense of curiosity feel less stress and approach their days thinking about what they might learn during this strange period, rather than feeling paralyzed by their changed circumstances.

To pique your own curiosity, consider setting regular learning goals, whether its figuring out a challenging piece of software, trying a new recipe, or searching for answers to the deep questions children ask because theyre naturally more curious, given that curiosity peaks at ages four and five.

When my child asks, Why is the sky blue? I turn it around and say, Why do you think its blue? How can we find the answer? Maybe before the pandemic we had places to go and we felt we didnt have a few extra minutes to look for the answers to those questions, says Gino, who has four children. Now we have an opportunity to do just that. Even learning something small can give you pleasure and a sense of accomplishment.

And if the house gets a little messy during a curiosity quest, thats OK. Gino recalls her two-year-old exclaiming it was snowing while scattering salt from an open jar all over the floor, or her young children running around the kitchen, flinging open cabinets, and putting colanders on their heads as hats.

I used to ask them to stop but, at some point, I realized I was contributing negatively to my own curiosity and theirs, she says. Usually, the chaos or mess is not as big or loud as I envisioned it would get. And the joy that comes out of the little mess is significantly higher than the small amount of cleaning you have to do afterward.

Schedule each day. Many parents are caring for their children and guiding their remote learning while trying to do their own jobsand feeling like theyre failing on all fronts. Eventually, thoughts about unfinished work tasks encroach on relaxation time, making people feel as though theyre always working.

Youre trying to stuff too much into a little sack and it keeps tearing open, Brooks says.

He recommends people schedule everything they need or want to do, whether its finishing a presentation or talking a walk. Sticking to the schedule will help restore some work-life balance and reduce cognitive load, freeing up mental bandwidth to efficiently process all the tasks people need to accomplish.

Focus on important projects. When people get stressed, they often look to accomplish tasks that are unimportant but feel urgent in the moment. So they spend their days feeling like theyre putting out small fires everywhere by answering emails and crossing relatively menial obligations off the to-do list.

To relieve time stress, people would benefit by setting aside blocks of time every day or even just once a week to work on the important heavy-lifting projects they put off but that weigh them downwhether personal or work-related, says Assistant Professor of Business Administration Ashley Whillans. If colleagues try to schedule meetings during that time, say no, and turn off alerts so youre not getting pinged with messages while trying to focus. Protect that time at all costs, Whillans says. It will help you feel more in control.

Its also OK to request more time to get work projects done if necessary, since studies show managers are generally willing to extend deadlines when employees ask. Its taking us longer to accomplish tasks right now, so we should ask for the time we reasonably need to get things done, Whillans says.

Gracefully bow out of extraneous activities. Many employers are trying to help their employees unwind by scheduling virtual coffee breaks, lunch gatherings, and happy hours with coworkers. But Whillans says companies should be careful about adding too many obligations to peoples already-full plates, even if their intention is to relieve stress through social interactions. And, if youre on the receiving end of these invitations and can tactfully decline, do it.

Adding more things to peoples schedules is not the way to go. All the video calls are especially exhausting, Whillans says.

Take time off, if you can. The demands of work havent slowed for many. And even in the best of times, people who report greater time scarcitythose who feel overwhelmed by having too much to do with not enough time to do everythingare more anxious and less satisfied with their lives, according to research by Whillans and Michael I. Norton, the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration.

Workers who are able to take time off and recharge during this disconcerting period will be more engaged when they return.

People often dont take the vacation time they have coming to them, and many are feeling even more hesitant to ask for time off right now. But they are also feeling really burned out, Whillans says. We have all had to do a lot of adapting in a short time, and we dont know when this is going to end. All the things we cant control are emotionally taxing, so, now more than ever, we need to take the personal time we have accumulated.

On days we do work, we should build in mini-mental health breaks to take a walk or enjoy coffee with a family member or friend, virtually or in person. Just taking 10 minutes to slow down can be helpful for our mental health, rather than being constantly in motion, Norton says.

Put your family first. People who stake their self-worth on financial success spend less time with family and feel lonelier as a result, Whillans recent research shows. We need to remember to set work aside and make time to connect in meaningful ways with family and friends, says Whillans, whose partners stressful work as an emergency room physician is a daily reminder to set her priorities straight.

I am really walking the talk in terms of my research right now, she says. The weight of whats going on underscores what really matters. We should be mindful about how we spend our timeand spending time together is much more precious than an abstract paper or phone call I dont need to take. Life is inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable, but what we say yes to are things we can control.

Naturally, emotions may flare when people are confined together. If you want your relationships to outlast the pandemic, resist the urge to express frustration through contempt, whether its a dismissive eye-roll or a sarcastic jab, Brooks says. Research by relationship scholar John M. Gottman found that couples who expressed contempt were more likely to divorce.

Hug it out. Schlesinger and Brooks recommend a simple strategy for relieving tension among friends and families who are quarantining together: Hug each other regularly for 20 seconds. This is the amount of time it takes to boost levels of oxytocinthe so-called love hormonein the brain to peak levels.

If youre lucky enough to have the physical presence of other folks in your house, grab one of them and hug them, Schlesinger says. And if youre social distancing alone, use videoconferencing tools to reach out to family and friends, so that you can look at each other as you talk, since eye contact also lifts oxytocin levels.

Connecting on social media, however, doesnt offer the same benefits. While use of social platforms has increased during the pandemic, with Facebook traffic rising by 50 percent in some countries, people dont get a boost of oxytocin from these interactions. Seeing random photos of happy families or political memes may even have the opposite effect and sap those good feelings. Outside of professional networking, its best to limit social browsing time to 30 minutes a day, Brooks and Schlesinger advise.

Lean on rituals. Continuing with longtime rituals, like making a partners coffee every morning or reading two storybooks to children before bed, can help couples and families bond and provide comfort at a time when so many other aspects of our lives have changed, Norton says.

With little kids, we dont mix up the bedtime ritual. We do the same thing in the same order because we know this is really important to them, Norton says. We think as grownups we dont need rituals anymore, but thats not the case. They help us calm our nerves.

Now people are adapting old ritualsby holding virtual Sunday dinners or gathering for church onlineand inventing new ones by going for walks on the same route every day or designating certain nights to playing games.

Preliminary data from a new study by Norton and HBS doctoral candidate Ximena Garcia-Rada shows more than half of parents have introduced new rituals since the crisis startedand many say they help their families cope. Even rituals that may seem annoying or kids complain about and ask why they have to do them are centering for families, Norton says. People need the familiar things that bond them even more during this crisis.

Rituals can also help employees working from home add boundaries around their workday. When people typically arrive home from work, they often have a corner or a mudroom where they drop their stuff, Norton says. Now many people have work all over the place. He advises storing laptops and work-related materials in a certain spot to mark the end of the workday.

Perhaps most tragically, social distancing has halted many in-person communal grieving rituals like wakes and funerals, adding to the sorrow of people mourning loved ones. Yet, even if the typical ceremonies arent practical right now, people can benefit from creating their own private, idiosyncratic rituals. One woman who lost a spouse years ago told Norton, I washed his car every week as he used to do.

Theres no ancient text to say you should wash someones car, Norton says. But, by doing something personally relevant and symbolic, she felt better.

Share your money and time with others. Material purchases are less satisfying than buying experiences like taking a trip or attending a show, Nortons research shows. Even though vacations and restaurant outings may not be in the cards right now, we can still spend money in ways that foster shared experiences with loved ones.

For example, buying a ping-pong table, TV, or online movie subscription for the family to enjoy together might make you happier than purchasing a phone to use by yourself, he says.

Also, the research shows spending money on other people makes us happier than spending it on ourselves. Many are doing just that, donating a portion of their stimulus checks to food banks or to friends who are out of work. Some are helping others in non-financial ways, including recovered coronavirus patients donating plasma to help the sick.

During this crisis, you see people doing incredibly altruistic, kind, giving things, such as people getting food and medicine to the elderly neighbors theyve never met before, Norton says. When you give generously to others, it makes you happier than when you focus only on yourself.

Expressing gratitude also acts as a powerful source of well-being, increasing dopamine levels and boosting productivity, says Gino. Ive gotten into the habit of calling or writing a note to people I havent talked to in a while to express gratitude for something they have done, she says. Showing someone else appreciation makes us feel good.

While life might have seemed simpler and more predictable prior to the coronavirus invading our world, thats probably an illusion. A cluttered home will probably still be messy when the virus abates.

Don't romanticize what life was before the coronavirus, Schlesinger says. Your house wasnt perfect.

When Schlesinger checks in with his grown children, he reminds them that the COVID-19 pandemic will end. Eventually, people will return to work, whether at their old jobs or new positions. Children will go back to school and catch up on missed lessons. The economy will stabilize.

And then, Brooks says, we'll look back on this and say, Hey, remember when we were all home together?

Dina Gerdeman is senior writer at Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, and Danielle Kost is senior editor.

[Image: jeffbergen]

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Fighting the COVID Blues: Advice from Business Research - Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

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