Originally published in The Washington Post by columnist Karla L. Miller on August 6, 2020
A Reader Responds to Pandemic Stress At Work
Reader: I have succeeded at my job by being highly organized; it’s my core professional identity. But recently I seem to have lost my grip on this completely. I discover much later that I didn’t complete tasks; I regard deadlines with a bizarre lack of interest; I look dumbly at empty cells on spreadsheets, slowly grasping that the data from the past three months is missing; my productivity is hovering in the lowest quadrant. I’ve been increasingly thinking and fantasizing about quitting. It’s a completely stupid and irrational idea. If I don’t pull myself together, I could get fired. I especially don’t need my supervisors or colleagues to know how much I’m struggling.
Karla: You’re not alone. Speaking for myself, the past several months have felt like all my school-based anxiety dreams about surprise exams and forgotten assignments. I’ve been dropping balls like a drunk juggler. Goldfish have better recall than I do.
This all started to make sense when I stumbled across the term “allostatic load,” which refers to the mental and physical effects of constant exposure to stress. Symptoms include forgetfulness, mind fog, apathy, detachment and reduced ability to function or focus. Between the coronavirus pandemic, civil rights conflicts, and, well, all of 2020 so far, our stress-response systems have been on high alert. Even if you’re not consciously thinking or worrying about these stressors, you’re being bombarded with “this is not normal” danger signals every time you log in to a Zoom meeting, turn on the news or wait your turn on a carefully spaced floor decal while wearing a mask. Processing those signals drains your battery, leaving you fatigued, exhausted and numb.
Employers In Charge
As if that weren’t stressful enough, “employers are in the driver’s seat now in a way that they haven’t been for a decade,” says Jim Weinstein, a psychotherapist and career counselor in Washington. With unemployment high, “employers can be more demanding than ever,” so workers “need to be extra careful about making moves that could be seen by your employer as a signal of diminished capacity.”
And yet the harder your brain is working, the less you seem to get done, and the more effort everything requires. Anyone whose life has been upended and expectations reset by illness, trauma or grief — or even happy changes, such as becoming a parent — knows the frustration of wanting to perform higher-function duties with a brain stuck in primitive survival mode.
I understand your reluctance to let anyone see that struggle, but trying to cover up and power through is only going to compound the stress. Honest conversations with friends, family or a therapist can bring invisible stressors to light and perhaps uncover strategies to manage them.
And don’t rule out being open with your boss and colleagues. One twisted upside to this pandemic is that, unlike a private struggle with mental health or a personal life change, everyone else is being subjected to the same stressors as you. Obviously it depends on their capacity for empathy, but you may be surprised by how much grace they’re willing to extend to someone sharing their own experience.
In the meantime, do what you can to reduce your obligations and expectations. Accept that you’re not functioning at maximum efficiency. Write down even simple to-dos that you used to juggle in your head. Take more frequent breaks. Set smaller, more manageable goals. Be even more mindful about eating, sleeping and moving to restore your depleted reserves.
Reassure yourself and others that you will get the important stuff done, even if it takes longer. Be as gentle and patient with yourself as you would be with a loved one who’s recovering from surgery. And again, know that this struggle is a normal response, it’s not your fault, and most important, you’re far from alone.