WFH Tips for Your Mental Health in a Pandemic: Q&A with James Pratt – Part 1

This has been an incredibly difficult few weeks for all of us in the New Tech community. What started as a scramble for many of us to figure out how to do our jobs – in the midst of a pandemic like we’ve never seen in our lifetimes – has turned into something that’s appearing much longer lasting. At the same time, with much of our country and economy effectively shut down, layoffs and furloughs are mounting.

It’s more important now than ever to make sure we’re not just taking care of our physical health but our mental health as well. Many of us are stressed about COVID-19, being laid off, trying to keep our businesses open, trying to take care of our employees, and myriad other financial, business and health challenges.

To help us through these uncertain times, we’re pleased to host a New Tech Virtual “Mental Health Check-In AMA” with James Pratt, executive coach, mental health advocate, management trainer and startup advisor at Reflective Management, at 4 p.m. next Tuesday, April 14. In anticipation of next week’s virtual event, I had a chance to sit down – virtually, of course – with James.

How can we maintain mental well-being while being isolated at home for weeks (months?) on end?

Isolation is a great place to start. We’re social creatures and we need to be around people. If you work in an office you’re around people all day.  And even those of us who already worked from home, we’re still going out to meetings or to a coffee shop. We choose to put ourselves in positions where we are socially connected. That very fundamental need that we have is impacted by suddenly having to work from home in isolation.

The second thing I think about a lot is anxiety, which is a very broad topic because there are several different types of anxiety. Things like generalized anxiety disorder(GAD), panic disorder or social anxiety.Those are top of mind as things people might experience – or be made worse – by these times we’re living in.

As humans, we need a sense of certainty in the world, and a lack of certainty makes anxiety worse.  You have uncertainty around the stability of your job, uncertainty around the state of the world, uncertainty around when you’ll be able to start living a more normal life again. You have anxiety about the economy or the performance of your job. So, there are a lot of new stresses in play. It’s important to understand that stress is a healthy response to things – it actually makes us do stuff – but if you get too much it becomes chronic and it can make anxiety much worse.

The last thing I think about is withdrawal and grief.  We tend to lead very stimulating lives. For example, you drop the kids off at school. You pick the kids up at school. You take the kids to soccer practice. You go to work. You go to a meeting. You have lunch with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. You go home and watch TV. There’s a lot of stimulation throughout the day. Much of that stimulation that we’re used to is gone. I have a hunch that some people might be experiencing withdrawal as a result. Withdrawal might show up as increased anger or potentially going back to doing things you can’t do any more, like sneaking back to the office to work – even though you know you shouldn’t.

So, from a mental health or mental well-being perspective, what should we be thinking about to maintain mental health? There are things we can do to help, such as maintain a good diet, exercise, get outside in the sun, get a good night’s sleep, do things like meditation and stay connected to people virtually. These things are important now more than ever, but what needs to change is people need to prioritize themselves. For instance, committing yourself to going out for a walk or eating well – and prioritizing that over your work.

There are a few things to do from a mindset perspective right now, like practicing self-compassion, for example being kind to ourselves. This is a completely messed up time, so have compassion for the fact that we’re living unusual circumstances. Yes, you need to eat right, but you’re also going to have an evening where you eat junk food. Don’t beat yourself up for that because it’s not going to help. Find the ways to be kind and compassionate to yourself right now. Just do your best! Those are the things that we need to do to look after our mental well-being at times like this.

What are some ways that we can connect with others in a time like this?

You need to make a disproportionate effort to connect with people right now because you’re not having that social interaction all the time, particularly if you’re used to being in an office environment.  I’ve seen companies do all sorts of creative things. The employees at Geniuslink, for example, have “Tea at 3” every day.  Over at Udemy, I heard they have pet happy hours on Zoom. I’m part of the team at Reverb People, and we’ve had happy hours in which we’ve generated a Netflix “must watch” list. Make that effort to connect.

Another way to foster connection to the rest of humanity is to find good things to do. When you feel disempowered, it can be really helpful to take some level of control by doing something kind for someone else. For instance, picking up groceries for your neighbor or calling a friend who you know is alone. There are lots of simple things you can do to connect with others and make yourself feel better at the same time.  And I say that without cynicism.  Doing good because you know it feels good is OK.  Doing good because you want balloons and a parade, not so much.

With all of us working remotely, what might you suggest employees do to stay connected with each other and help maintain a healthy culture at our companies?

I think we need to understand what culture is,  culture is the things that we do automatically without thinking about them. For example, what we say, the metaphors we use, how we interact with each other, what things that we demonstrate are important by how we treat them and think about them. If you think about culture through that lens – it’s a set of actions and things that we do – you’re in a situation now. Because we’re all at home, that culture is getting reinforced less frequently because you’re not only interacting with people less frequently and also fewer people at one time.

I would say, from a culture perspective, companies should consciously double down on the things that are important in their culture. Let’s say, for example, your culture is one that really values gratitude – and saying thank you to people – do it twice as much as you think you need to right now. If your company gets together to play board games on Tuesday evenings, do that virtually. If you have a weekly lunch with employees, keep that going. Doing these things will hopefully keep your company culture strong.

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