Wellbeing in the Time of COVID-19

In Australia, it was toilet rolls and in the United States, primarily basic medicines, bottled water and guns. With pizzazz and scuffles, Italians cleared the shelves of coffee and pasta. For months, it has been virtually impossible to find a face mask in Asia.

The choices of what to stockpile in this time of Novel Corona Virus are fascinating insights into our differing national psyches but the current strong urge to hoard speaks more to our universal fears and anxieties.

In an increasingly uncertain world, it is normal that we latch onto things we can control. While it’s mostly unnecessary and not recommended, filling cupboards with basic necessities and long-life food can counterbalance some of the disorientation many of us are feeling right now.

Up until this current pandemic, there was less chance of becoming seriously ill or dying from a transmittable disease than at virtually any other time in history, and that will probably remain the case, even as we brace for the worst of COVID-19.  The same is also true for war and famine. There are, of course, painful exceptions to this larger trend in various hotspots around the world but, for the vast majority of us, this is still the safest time to be alive.

The Spanish Flu, which began in 1918, is estimated to have killed up to one hundred million people. More than were lost in conflict during both world wars combined. In the early 1500s, the population of Mexico was reduced from an estimated 22 million to 2 million as a result of smallpox and other diseases ferried across the Atlantic from Spain. Similar catastrophic epidemics wiped out large numbers of indigenous people around the globe, who had no immunity to diseases introduced during European colonisation.

It is difficult for us to comprehend but, at that time, the entire population of the planet was totally ignorant about how diseases spread and, even if they had known, there was no effective treatment available. They could not begin to understand the science and medicines we now have available to prevent and mitigate the potential harm done by infectious disease.

So, if we are light years ahead in our ability to manage the effects of COVID-19 and we live in a relatively good time to be confronting a global pandemic, why are we feeling so incredibly anxious and what can we do about it?

Why so anxious?

There are likely three key contributing factors working against our ability to maintain a sense of wellbeing in these unprecedented times.

Firstly, even before this virus emerged, many of us were feeling uneasy. In Australia, we had severe drought, followed by catastrophic bushfires and floods. Graphic images of Australia’s fires roared around the planet as global warming leapt off the pages of reports and into our reality.

For many, Australia burning was an apocalyptic insight into what could be ahead for us all. Add geopolitical uncertainties such as the ongoing plight of refugees, Brexit and the toxic polarisation of political rhetoric coming out of the USA, to mention only a few, and we were all a bit jittery well before the virus appeared.

In addition to concerns about getting sick, the faltering global economy now adds legitimate, compounding anxieties about job security and financial wellbeing. In a nutshell, there’s a fair bit to worry about.

The second significant factor ratcheting up our concerns is the megaphone of 24-hour news and social media incessantly reminding us about all that’s wrong with the world. Our addiction to smart devices means most of us now ride the media rollercoaster in real time, with little breathing space to process what we are seeing and hearing.

There are millions of positive things happening out there every day, but the news we get is invariably skewed towards problems. It’s not clear if media channels are just giving us what we crave or if we have been fed a diet of bad news for so long that we find the taste of positive stories bland and unexciting. Either way, unless we take active steps to switch off, our minds are easily crammed with negative thoughts.

The combination of these first two factors adds a third and most fascinating element potentially eroding our sense of wellbeing. As the detrimental impacts of this pandemic deepen, the fragility and vulnerability of our existence is being highlighted, possibly in ways not felt since the world wars.

The anchor points which have held first-world certainties in place, such as unbroken food supply, the ability to travel freely, global trade and faith in technological solutions, are no longer feeling so secure. It’s unnerving to see cities such as Wuhan or postcard picture sites like the Grand Canal in Venice, which are normally teaming with life, devoid of any normal human activity.

As we follow the spread of COVID-19 around the globe, that globe is increasingly feeling like a small place. It is perhaps a timely illustration that our collective future is dependent on our ability and willingness to cooperate on a grander scale than we have succeeded in doing up until now.

This comes at a time when attempts to collaborate globally are being undermined by local populism and a resurgence in nationalism. A time when we seem increasingly deluded that individual countries can continue to thrive, regardless of what happens to our neighbours across borders.

So COVID-19 has created real worries for us which are compounding pre-existing big picture concerns, more often than not our heads are being filled with negative stories and we are feeling increased levels of vulnerability.

What can we do to maintain wellbeing?

Within this troublesome cocktail there are some things we can influence and others we cannot. Engaging our rational brains as much as possible and accessing reliable factual information can help.

It is of course essential that we heed advice from medical experts, like washing hands and minimising physical contact if we or others around us are at risk.

There are other steps that individuals and organisations can take to help maintain a level of wellbeing in the face of the real concerns now confronting us all. One of the most well recognised approaches is the Five Ways to Wellbeing framework, based on extensive research by New Economics Foundation.

Ensuring we factor these elements into our lives, which are proven to enhance wellbeing, may be more important now than ever.

1 – Stay connected

Many of us will experience periods of either self-imposed or mandatory separation from those we care about, as the numbers diagnosed with Novel Corona Virus increases. It is particularly important to stay connected in any way we can during periods of isolation.

We have witnessed emotional examples of our primal need to socialise as streets and whole neighbourhoods of people in China and Italy sang, called out positive messages and made music together from their apartment balconies.

Text, call, video link and reach out to family, friends, colleagues and those in your community who are temporarily cut off, or if you are feeling disconnected yourself.

Organisations should use technology at their disposal to actively remain in communication with employees and encourage them to stay connected to one another through on-line activity such as virtual meetings and workshops.

2 – Stop and take notice of the positive things

While it is important to stay informed, try limiting exposure to bad news barrelling down from media of all stripes. There will be lots of amazingly positive stories resulting from this collective challenge if we are open to hearing and telling them. Don’t let the bad stuff drown out the good.

Stop and take notice of the things that bring joy and happiness. Take the time to observe and experience beauty anywhere you can find it. For some this may be a favourite painting or listening to music. For others it could be the feeling of sand under feet, the warm touch of a beloved pet or the bitter taste of coffee in the morning. Tune in to the moment and keep smelling the roses.

Along with important precautionary information, organisations should show they appreciate the good things happening within them and around them and consider communicating more good news stories to employees.

3 – Be as active as possible

Physical activity and exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on wellbeing. Raising heart rate oxygenates the brain and releases endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, all of which can help reduce anxiety and depression. There is increasing evidence that maintaining a level of physical heath has a direct, causal and positive impact on mental health.

Finding yourself confined indoors does not mean you need to be sedentary. There are plenty of indoor exercise tips on-line that can help you stay active. For some, dancing to a favourite tune may be an option. If you can get out, go for a walk, run, swim or cycle.

Of course, if you are feeling unwell, it is important to seek medical advice regarding appropriate level of physical activity.

Organisations should remind employees of the need to stay as active as possible despite restrictions on movement and contact with others.

4 – Keep learning

A focus on mastering something new can be a mind nourishing alternative to processing bad news.

This could be a good time to do that on-line course, redouble efforts to play the guitar or bake the perfect cake. If you find yourself with more time on your hands, perhaps resurrect a dormant interest or channel energy into a new one.

It won’t help to fixate or ruminate on things we can’t control.

As organisations act to minimise the detrimental impact of this virus, they should also think about how they can continue to provide development opportunities for their employees. Engaging staff in ongoing learning activities, perhaps virtually, can positively impact current wellbeing and help prepare to take advantage of the opportunities that will emerge post COVID-19.

5 – Give

Continuing to give to others, while facing our own challenges, can be enormously beneficial to our individual sense of wellbeing. Even small acts of kindness are good for the receiver and the giver.

As we work through the impact of this virus over the coming weeks and months, we will be confronted with choices. Do we act in our self-interest only or do we consider others? There will be many opportunities to give of ourselves and make life a little easier for someone else.

Take the time to thank someone, donate to a cause that resonates with you or perhaps consider volunteering your time.

Being part of something bigger than ourselves, that gives back to society, can be highly motivating for employees. This positive effect is likely to be amplified by acts of kindness and giving in difficult times. As organisations look for ways to mitigate risk, it will important they continue to give in whatever capacity they can and that they take the time to thank their employees and customers for working through the effects of this pandemic with them.

We want to hear from you

Steople has been helping organisations and individuals maintain and improve wellbeing for more than a decade.

We are regularly called upon in times of stress and we are proud of the positive impact we make on the quality of people’s lives and on the effectiveness of organisations.  

We would love to hear what you or your organisation are doing to support wellbeing, at this time, and to help others by sharing your stories. This will be part of our contribution to keeping us all connected over the next few months.

Please send your wellbeing stories and ideas to Steople at [email protected]

If we can help you or your organisation in any way during this time, email us at [email protected] or call us on 03 8256 1665.