Over the past nine months, we have been going through various phases of lockdown, re-entry, and Working From Home (WFH). The Covid-19 pandemic and its ripple effects have accelerated change at an unprecedented pace. Changes which would have been made down the road are happening now. Long-term plans lack certainty and clarity, and we are learning (albeit often grudgingly) to live with it. This volatility and uncertainty involve no small amount of anxiety and stress. In fact, anything short of stressed out would be considered abnormal given the current VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world we are living in. But how can we navigate these constantly changing and ambiguous environments and channel the stress so we can move forward with grace and conviction?
Employees are at their best when they are energized, positive and engaged. Attaining and maintaining optimal levels of these attributes requires the utmost attention. So, what would help us optimize energy in order to navigate this fog of uncertainty, build resilience and make better strategic decisions?
Here are seven Tips for Reducing Anxiety and Stress during Uncertain Times
Manage digital overload
Although WFM has accelerated digital communications, learning and innovations, the mixing of private and professional working spaces has made it difficult for some people to switch off. Disciplining ourselves to set boundaries and disconnect at certain times – over lunch (45 to 60 minutes), earlier in the evenings, taking frequent breaks to stand up and stretch (five minutes), walk around and get fresh air (for example, 15 – 20 minutes twice a day) helps to manage the mental stress associated with too much static time in front of the screen. These breaks don’t significantly eat into work time and, in fact, can boost productivity by recharging emotional batteries.
Plan for the long-term and focus on the short-term
Having a vision of where we want to go helps us tend to our goals. This said, in these current increasingly VUCA environments (to the 10th power!) plans can change frequently. Rather than lamenting over the worst-case scenarios which may or may not emerge, focusing on the things which are within your realm of control is much more empowering. To focus on what you can control, agilely chunk down your time into manageable blocks which you know you will be able to achieve in the short term. For many, this involves accepting what is, and letting go of the things which lie outside our realm of influence. A time management workshop based on the “Eisenhower or Covey’s Matrices” can help with this. What do you need to let go of?
Empathy is not easy, and it is particularly difficult when we try to apply it to ourselves. Our brains are not wired that way – they hold so many unfounded limiting beliefs. However, showing compassion towards ourselves is the first step in extending empathy to others.
Exercises to try:
- Look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself all the good things about yourself for three minutes (set the timer!). This could also simply be repeating three positive statements about yourself for one to three minutes;
- As human beings, we have the power of choice. Choosing how you will begin your day can make all the difference; and
- Some people keep a daily success tracking chart in Excel. List three things you are grateful for each day. You have done a lot of things right – give yourself credit!
Maintaining personal connections
Whatever the source, stress can drag you down. Social support is essential to avoiding the burnout associated with stress and allows us to sustain more optimal levels of performance. Sharing with others on a daily basis can help you to decompress before an explosion occurs. Similarly, ‘being present’ for our loved ones and colleagues when they need to share provides much needed space for reflection. A caring ear is what will be remembered and will truly count in the long run (which most of us will survive!). Personal presence can be felt in-person as well as virtually. A good friend or professional coach can help provide the presence and active listening to help provide support and clarity (ICF competencies 3, 4 and 5).
With the increase of remote work, we must also remember to encourage informal conversations, so people are able to build and maintain the relationships necessary to increase trust and creativity.
In the current WFH environment, social networking is replacing group lunches, coffee breaks and happy hours. Sharing your feelings with others in whatever manner you prefer (phone, SMS, virtual cafés and happy hours) helps reason through difficulties and release anxiety. Make a goal of connecting with someone to discuss something other than work at least once a day.
There is a plethora of possibilities. Here are a few:
- Optimize your energy. Exercise regularly. Run, walk, practise yoga, meditate, etc.
- And make sure to eat giving thought to nutrition and portion size, drink enough water (1.5 litres/day) and get enough sleep. What works best for you? Choose your favourite mix, devise a plan, then activate it!
- Reduce the number of thoughts you have per day. The normal human being has 10,000 thoughts a day and at least 80% of them are the same thoughts we had yesterday and the day before (many of them worries which we can do nothing about). Practising mindfulness exercises – yoga, tai chi, stretching and PQ reps help to quieten our minds and reduce the number of thoughts we have. In so doing, the most pertinent thoughts which require focus automatically rise to the surface. What are PQ reps? PQ stands for Positive Intelligence Quotient and PQ reps involve focusing on physical sensations in order to release thoughts” (Resources | Positive Intelligence). They have been proven to rapidly move us from Saboteur to Sage by proactively choosing to listen to our inner voice which moves us to a more positive and productive place (rather than our inner chatter which tends to sabotage us). It is about accessing our right brain where creativity, curiosity and positivity reside. As we practise PQ reps, grey matter in the right brain grows and generates positive hormones and neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
- Journaling is another way of uncovering inner thoughts and releasing the stress inside. Revealing what lies under the surface to the page helps raise awareness, allows us to gain perspective and let go. If you write a few pages every day, it may just be enough to get you to the point where new ideas and innovations are revealed.
- Remember to breathe! Stress breathing gets shallow. Slowing breathing down to eight breaths per minute helps send oxygen to the brain and muscles, and subsequently move into a state of inner peace. Or, taking a few deep breaths and counting to 10 can help regain composure and override Amygdala hijack. Or, breathe slowly while holding back your first response long enough to think of a second. Then wait to think of a third before you choose which behaviour to pursue. Generally, somewhere between the second and third thing you think of, is the right option.
Remain positive to manage your energy
It takes at least three to five positive thoughts to compensate for every negative thought or communication to neutralize the associated negative emotion and operate at optimal levels. Compliments and positive dialogue generate a spiral upward into increasingly positive territory (as opposed to negative thoughts which cause spiralling down through a negative vortex). Analyse your interactions with others. What is the ratio of positive to negative exchanges?
Despite the confinement restrictions, a number of positive opportunities have emerged. With fewer distractions at the traditional office, we are developing a new capacity to focus, to create and innovate. We now have the chance to take back control of our time – our most precious resource. This time can be the opportunity to create workable solutions which are truly sustainable by focusing on the impact of our work rather than the quantity. Research shows that WFM improves employees’ mental and physical health, reduces the carbon footprint and generates considerable monthly savings for companies. Allowing employees the flexibility to WFM two to three times per week renders them more autonomous, reduces commutes and increases engagement. Continuing this will be key to maintaining happiness, engagement and consequently ensure higher levels of productivity.
Live life according to our values
Living in accordance with our values can help ground us so that we are able to take decisions with conviction in the midst of adversity. Values discovery is a cornerstone of effective leadership. By clarifying our top five values and aligning them to organisational core values, what is important becomes the foundation from which we operate and serves to anchor us to confidently move forward. *
Anxiety and stress are normal during uncertain times. How will you choose to emerge stronger?
Dana Lefeuvre, MCC, from France, is an ICF accredited Executive and Team Coach working at the intersection of Leadership Coaching and Cultural Consulting. With over 31 years of experience working in and with multicultural teams, she helps senior executives and multicultural teams adapt, rapidly integrate and co-create new work environments. Values and Vision are at the heart of her work. She coaches, designs and delivers workshops in English and French. Having been based in the Americas, Europe, Southeast Asia, and Angola, she also speaks some Bahasa, Portuguese and Spanish. Prior to coaching, she held line management roles in heavy industry, finance, strategic development consulting and the public sector.
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is the world’s largest organization leading the global advancement of the coaching profession and fostering coaching’s role as an integral part of a thriving society. Founded in 1995, its 35,000-plus members located in more than 140 countries and territories work toward common goals of enhancing awareness of coaching and upholding the integrity of the profession through lifelong learning and upholding the highest ethical standards. Through the work of its six unique family organizations, ICF empowers professional coaches, coaching clients, organizations, communities and the world through coaching. Visit coachingfederation.org for more information.
ICF South Africa is a Chartered Chapter of ICF with 443 members (January 2021)
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