Jim Weinstein Featured in The Washington Post: Coping with COVID Work Stress

This article was originally published in The Washington Post on July 23, 2020 by columnist Karla L. Miller.

Last week, I invited readers to share how coronavirus stress — not the virus itself, but the mental and emotional fallout of living and working through a pandemic — has affected them at work. Even if you’re able to work with minimal exposure to the virus and minimal disruption to your income, general anxiety and the struggle to adapt to a new work environment can wear you down and make it hard to keep up with your job.

“I am definitely being contacted by more people seeking guidance on how to cope with increased pressure and those toying with the idea of calling it quits,” says Jim Weinstein, a psychotherapist and career counselor practicing in Washington.

To help build resilience and maintain psychological reserves, Weinstein suggests various strategies including exercise; a daily routine that may involve prayer, meditation, learning a new skill, or simple but satisfying chores; eschewing overexposure to news and tuning in to uplifting content; and staying connected with friends and family online.

Personally, as someone prone to “doomscrolling” through media feeds, I second Weinstein’s call for uplifting content. I’m also a believer in scheduling time for “breakdown” content: cathartic books, music, movies or other art that helps you safely bleed off pent-up grief, fear and anger.

And while the urge to feather one’s quarantine nest with useful or comforting possessions is understandable, Weinstein advises clients to “rein in spending and build a financial buffer that will help you cope with unexpected developments,” or that can be used on “additional education, training, and/or certification [that] may be necessary to shifting your career.”

Now let’s hear from readers working in two particularly high-stress situations.

Reader 1: I work in the travel industry, in a company going through a takeover. Roughly 70 percent of our staff has either been laid off or given reduced hours. The rest of us have been working with no time off, under more stressful conditions than I have seen in 23 years. We’re all coming to the end of our tethers. Work used to feel like a reprieve from my own brain, but I have been considering quitting every day since April. The theory going around is that if the new management makes things miserable enough, people will quit and save them thousands [of dollars] on severance. The current situation and new management have me questioning whether my mental health is worth the decent severance payment I stand to receive if I stay until I’m laid off.

Karla: I believe you that this is the worst your industry has been in decades. No one could blame you for walking away. But what would you be walking into? Unemployment, an equally bad job in the same field, or a whole new career? Will that preserve your health, or make things worse?

It’s precisely because you’ve been around this long that I hope you can find it in you, perhaps drawing on some self-care strategies, to hold out a little longer. Your years of experience give you perspective and stability that your junior colleagues need. And (murmuring behind my hand) you might find some ornery motivation in denying the new management a cheap out.

Reader 2: I work for a nonfederal government entity in public health. In late February, I was asked to “tone down” my scary rhetoric about something that was “never going to hit our state.” By April, I was accused of not being passionate enough about “ending” the pandemic. In May, I was accused of trying to make an official “look bad” because of the facts (written by doctors!) my office was releasing. I regularly receive requests that amount to either making things look good or making the bad things go away by the end of the business day. The officials I work with don’t want to be briefed, and publicly make attractive promises without asking the experts and front-line workers what’s possible.

I’ve worked in government and politics for over 20 years, but never before been in a situation where citizens are literally dying by the day because of those behaviors. I’ve gone way past burnout, and I’m numb for a majority of the time. But I’ve been a public health advocate since long before these officials got elected. I’ll continue to be a public health advocate after this is over, if it ever is. That helps a lot.

Karla: Again, no one would blame you for bailing on this thankless job. But along with supplying food and providing health care, battling fantasy with facts is one of the most essential jobs right now. I hope you, too, can find strength and strategies to help you keep at it. Taking the long view is a good start.

Pro tip: The Department of Labor has published new online resources for employers and employees seeking guidance on leave and wage laws during the coronavirus pandemic, including plain-English fact sheets and FAQs. Visit https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/pandemic for more information.

Next week: Yeah, but what if I really, really, really can’t take it?