CARE for Self and Others: Mental Health and the Workplace in Uncertain Times

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has presented a different set of challenges in 2021 than in 2020. Last year the marching orders were clear for most people with office-based jobs: work from home, attend meetings online, socially distance, and wear a mask when outside the home. This year there is less clarity. Vaccinated individuals are highly protected against hospitalization and death due to COVID-19, but a substantial portion of the population remains unvaccinated and at risk. Employers vary in terms of safeguards and requirements they’ve imposed for ensuring a healthy workplace.

A large proportion of the workforce is stressed and anxious about returning to work in person and adjusting to the frequent changes in policy that organizations are making in response to the latest CDC guidelines. All of this has resulted in what’s now a chronic VUCA situation (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). How can we move from VUCA to what Bill George of Harvard Business School referred to as VUCA 2.0 (vision, understanding, courage, and adaptability)? The CARE model provides a pathway to developing greater insight into the challenges we face, the risks they pose to our mental health, and potential solutions that can help us navigate the ongoing and evolving pandemic.

Change: Whether change is positive (such as a job promotion) or negative (such as a problematic increase in workload), it induces substantial stress associated with physical, cognitive, and emotional adjustments. The amygdala (the brain’s almond-shaped fear center) fires rapidly, stress hormones circulate throughout the body, and the fight-or-flight response prepares us to protect ourselves against perceived dangers. But these reactions also interfere with clear-headed, long-term thinking. If these changes persist for too long, they can result in burnout which is characterized by exhaustion, negative thinking, and even cynicism or hopelessness about our jobs. Counterproductive behaviors and psychiatric conditions (such as depression, anxiety, eating disorder, or substance abuse) may follow. We all need to be aware and mindful that substantial life change — again, whether positive or negative — is a serious risk factor.

Anticipate: Under conditions of change and uncertainty, anticipating potential pitfalls and dangers is critical. Self-reflection can help us to identify what each of our potential paths toward physical and mental decline may be. Some of the most common warning signs are sad mood, loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities, anxiety or panic attacks, irritability and anger, sleep disturbance, changes in appetite and eating patterns, low energy and fatigue, decreased attention and concentration, physical symptoms (such as headache and gastrointestinal distress), and increased alcohol or substance use. Regardless of gender, we are all at risk of any of these symptoms. But epidemiological research has revealed higher risk of some of these problems depending on one’s gender. For example, women are at 70% higher risk of an anxiety disorder and 50% more likely to miss days of work. Meanwhile, men are more than twice as likely to engage in substance abuse and are also substantially more likely to engage in impulsive or antisocial behavior. It’s essential for all of us to think about our past patterns of responding to change and stress, in order to eliminate or mitigate symptoms that may emerge under conditions of VUCA.

Resilience: Self-awareness of our personal risk factors allows us to adapt (and even potentially thrive) when faced with acute and chronic stress. When the amygdala is in overdrive and fight-or-flight kicks in, it’s all too easy to forget that we still have personal choice and a capacity to be resilient. Mindset is paramount: we need to remind ourselves of the reality that we still have more control of our destiny than we might realize. With this positive mindset, we position ourselves to take behavioral steps toward adaptation. The most important first step is to proactively establish a “behavioral schedule” that includes a regular sleep pattern, exercise, nutrition, mental downtime from work, and engagement in previously enjoyable activities (even if you don’t feel like it at first!), and reaching out to others for support. Deepening social connections to friends and family is key. In more tenuous situations, reaching out to a mental health professional for counseling and/or medication might be helpful as well. Resilience is a personal choice we can make if we embrace the mindset of choice and autonomy whether we are feeling well or not.

Evolve: Resilience is about responding well to changes over which we have little or no control. We can also develop the mindset that unforeseen changes present an opportunity to evolve toward something better. There are steps we can take to “turn lemons into lemonade” and move toward a state of flourishing — not just coping. The path toward a healthier workplace and personal fulfillment in jobs runs through “psychological safety,” which is the hallmark of a workplace where people are free to speak freely about their ideas and experience (without fear of judgmental reactions or reprisal). We all can take responsibility for expressing our concerns and ideas respectfully, and at the same time ensure the dignity of people with a different viewpoint. This depends on asking each other open-ended questions with a focus on learning rather than on imposing an agenda. The robust conversations that result can enhance engagement and a sense of “buy in,” even if colleagues or the organization decide to move in a direction we don’t fully agree with. Additionally, we can leverage skills and lessons learned resulting from pandemic challenges to reinforce our commitment to mental well-being and continuous development of a more collaborative, cohesive workplace.

Regardless of our job role, we have the personal capacity to walk through the CARE process for ourselves and also contribute to a psychologically safe work environment. In doing so, we can improve the performance of the company and promote our colleagues’ mental health at the same time. With chronic VUCA amid what still seems like a never-ending pandemic, the CARE approach can help us navigate well for the sake of ourselves and those around us.

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