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We are living in contradictory times, as the world unites against COVID-19 by staying separate. That can be hard to reconcile. Tanya speaks with Jen Fisher, host of the WorkWell podcast, about mental health and practical ways to cope with isolation and anxiety in these trying times.
Tanya Ott: There’s a phrase that you’ve been hearing a lot lately … and it kind of puts you on edge.
Jason Fulmore: Oh right, so the first line in their email or whatever they’re mailing is, “in these uncertain times.” And I don’t know why it bothers me so much. …
Tanya: That’s my husband, Jason. We’ve been sheltering-in-place together for almost two months and it’s getting old … And so are phrases like “uncertain times” and “the new normal.” Still, how can you not acknowledge that lots of things are upside down right now?
Jen Fisher: The three things that create anxiety and fear are uncertainty, no defined end date or time, and the possibility for it to be chronic and long term. Right now, unfortunately, we’re checking all three of those boxes. And everybody across the globe is experiencing some sort of heightened anxiety, heightened fear.
Tanya: But there are ways to address it and we’re going to talk about them today on the Press Room.
Jen: My name is Jen Fisher and I’m the chief well-being officer for Deloitte.
Tanya: And what does being the chief well-being officer entail?
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Jen: It means that I work with the entire organization to really set the strategy, the programs, the tools, the resources that we provide to our people to empower them to stay healthy and well in all aspects of their life, because we know that if we can promote health and wellness in all aspects of life, people will also show up to work healthy and well and fully engaged.
Tanya: Jen hosts a podcast called WorkWell that’s all about creating a culture of wellness at work and improving work-life integration. But let’s get real. Many of us are working from home these days under circumstances that are less than ideal by any measure.
If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you might have heard me mention that after 30 years as a broadcaster, I’m back in the classroom as a doctoral student. Recently, one of my professors conducted a two-hour statistics class on Zoom while balancing his toddler daughter on his lap. That is not normal, but he made it work. We’re all doing the best we can to make it work. But it’s stressful.
Jen: It’s being called a new normal. I refuse to call it a new normal because I don’t believe this is our new normal. I believe it is our temporary normal. And there will be a new normal that evolves after this. And reminding ourselves that what we’re going through is temporary, it’s not permanent, it’s not going to be this way forever, is actually a really healthy coping strategy. But everybody’s adjusting to a new routine, a new way of work-life integration with new and different challenges or new and different responsibilities, whether it’s trying to work from home with children on your lap, whether it’s, in my own experience, I’m trying to care for my elderly parents from a distance because I can’t be there. I can’t physically go see them and put them at any increased risk. There are people that are working home completely alone and have been isolated for several weeks, which can be very detrimental to our mental health.
But I also think, if you want to talk about silver linings, we’re getting to the core of what’s essential and what really matters in life. We’re using that as a way to connect with one another. We’re all collectively across the globe vulnerable together, right now, in many ways. The things that I’ve heard from colleagues, there’s a lot out there about maintaining human connection and how do we stay connected when we can’t be physically present with one another. Lots of cool ideas from concerts to people doing Zoom yoga together to your smoothie breaks and coffee breaks and all that kind of stuff. And what I’ve actually heard is that people feel like they know their colleagues and perhaps even some of their friends better or in a different way than they ever did before, because now they know what their [friends’] kids look like, what their names are. They can see their bookshelves, perhaps, or their laundry rooms. They know what they’re reading. They’re inside their homes and inside their lives in a way that a lot of us never allowed that before. It’s a different level of connection. And it’s this collective vulnerability that is creating a lot of patience. It’s creating a lot of empathy. I hope that this is something that we maintain long past this crisis because it’s allowing us to be much more human than we ever were before in the workplace.
Tanya: That’s a really good observation you make, because you’re right, we are seeing completely new sides to the people that we work with. You, on the podcast, are talking with a lot of people who have great perspective on this stuff. One of the people that you talked to was Laurie Cameron, who is a leading voice on mindfulness meditation. I’d love to have you talk a little bit about her take on why we’re so stressed out right now and what that means for us.
Jen: In that episode of the podcast, we did talk about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation in “normal times.” Right now, meditation is probably one of the greatest tools that we all have access to as we stay home, because you don’t need anything special to meditate. Laurie talks about how as human beings we live of this state of survival mode.
Laurie Cameron: Because we are not built to be happy or to be in a state of well-being necessarily, we are actually built for survival and our minds are designed to constantly scan the environment, to look left and right to detect threats, and then once we see those threats, we hang onto them and we ruminate and repeat them and go over and over in our head with this negative or difficult thing that we perceive is happening. It might not even be real, but we are designed for survivals so it’s very hard to focus.
Jen: This goes way back to when we didn’t have homes and protection and [didn’t] live in the world that we live in today, but our brains are really wired for survival mode [as if] we’re running from that bear or that lion all the time. We’re wired to look for and find things that are threats. In today’s world, they’re more perceived threats than actual threats. But we’re still wired that way. Our brain[s] don’t really know the difference between something that’s a real threat or a perceived threat. We hang on to that, we ruminate, and we repeat and go over and over in our head with these negative or difficult thoughts or feelings that we’re having. They may not even be real, but we’re just designed this way. It’s hard for us to focus, even more so in today’s environment.
The three things that create anxiety and fear are uncertainty, no defined end date or time, and the possibility for it to be chronic and long term. Right now, unfortunately, we’re checking all three of those boxes. Everybody across the globe is experiencing some sort of heightened anxiety, some sort of heightened fear. Now, that’s at different levels, depending on who you are and how you perceive and how you process or what tools and what coping mechanisms you have in your toolkit right now.
But meditation is something that all of us should have in our toolkit right now. I know it’s something that we’ve all heard of. We may not have all tried, but I encourage everybody to at least give it a try. You can start with two minutes today. I know that might sound silly, but the science has proven that two minutes a day will help you. You can do that for a week and [add] another two minutes. Do that for a week. Increase for another two minutes. If you can’t sit kind of in silence and use your own breath, there are lots of meditation apps out there. Perhaps some other silver lining of what’s going on today is there are a lot of companies that are putting things out on the internet for free. You can get 30- to 60-day free trials of some of these apps and things like that. I encourage everybody to give it a try because meditation in normal times is a medicine for worry and anxiety, but in the times we’re in right now, it’s something that truly can help every single one of us. And it’s accessible to anybody, no matter who you are. No matter where you are.
Tanya: You and Laurie both talk about this fight-or-flight anxiety and stress. We’re always looking around us and the world. We’re programed this way to look around and assess threats. But there are different kinds of threats. I’m curious what the differences [are] in the way people would react to something immediate—a hurricane or tornado, some sort of really major natural disaster—versus this kind of slow moving, developing kind of situation that we have with COVID 19.
Jen: With a hurricane or a tornado or a natural disaster, yes, there is uncertainty. Oftentimes, there’s kind of a known end time or end date, if you will. Tornadoes or earthquakes are a little bit different in that there’s not a lot of uncertainty on the front end. There’s not a lot of anticipatory anxiety because you don’t see them coming or when you do, it kind of happens in a split second. I live in Miami. Hurricanes, on the other hand, you kind of see them coming and the news cycle goes on for a week to 10 days sometimes. The anticipatory anxiety is huge when it comes to that. But there’s a known end date. It comes and it goes. Right? Maybe the aftermath is longer term and could be considered chronic, if you will. But you do move very quickly into a state of recovery. You’re able to shift your mind from this uncertainty, from this anticipatory anxiety to focus on things that you can control.
One of the best well-being and resilience strategies in a time of uncertainty or in a time of recovery is focusing on what you can control. And right now, there’s a lot that’s out of our control. But the truth is there’s always a lot that we can control. How you design your day, what routines, even if they’re new routines. What time you wake up and go to sleep every day. Sticking to a set routine. What do your meals look like every day? Having built-in times of movement. Exercise every day, having time built-in for reflection every day. Whatever it is that works for you, creating a sense of normalcy or routine that allows for recovery is really important. That’s how we can shift our mindset from what’s going on today, where everything is just so out of control or feels out of control.
Tanya: On your podcast, you talked to one of the leading voices in the world of what’s called positive psychology. Her name is Emiliya Zhivotovskaya and you talk to her about resiliency. And it got a little personal.
Jen: Resiliency is actually a skill and you can train for it just like you would train for any other skill. There is the kind of resilience that comes from a major life trauma, and listeners of the WorkWell podcast most likely know that I’m a cancer survivor. So, that is a major life trauma. There are lots of examples of major life traumas.
Tanya: Fortunately, many of us don’t go through that kind of experience. And Emiliya says day-to-day stress can actually train us for resilience as well.
Emiliya Zhivotovskaya: Some of the things that I focus on in the field of positive psychology is looking at how do we actually teach resilience as a skill set knowing that if it’s a major trauma, most people kind of have a default setting that just kicks into gear whether it be September 11 here in the US, whether it be someone dies and you need to step up and take care of what needs to be done. During those emergency type of situations, we have a default setting that people kick into, but with things like your emails getting over flooded, going in to have a vulnerable conversation with a person that you don’t have the skills to communicate with, all of those type of stressors are the types of skills that most of us aren’t actually trained in.
Jen: What the research shows is that if you are someone who is resilient to the day-to-day life stressors and you have healthy habits and you put things into place that have in a positive and healthy way allowed you to deal with whatever your day-to-day stressors are, then that’s a way to train for bigger life issues that may come up. Those day-to-day things that you do will make you more resilient in the times where there’s much bigger issues or much larger trauma to deal with.
I would say for people that perhaps didn’t or haven’t built some of these resiliency skills and are having a difficult time coping now, now is a great time to start small. One of the things that I talk about is microsteps, and Emiliya talked about this too: some is better than none.
Emiliya: Some is better than none, more is better than some, and lots is better than more. I will say that again, it took me a little while to develop but it is like some is better than none, more is better than some, and lots is better than more, and this is supported by research. So even the American Dietetic Association says that if a person has got a pretty crappy diet, they are going to get benefits just by adding some vegetables in and if you are already having some vegetables, get more, and if you are already getting more, get lots, same thing with movement. So it’s amazing to say that the people who will literally get benefit from like a 15-minute walk, if you are not doing anything at all, that 15 minutes actually gives you a significant boost to things like your immune system, things like getting your body filled with more oxygen. You are actually burning more toxins out of your body. So, it’s more important to ask people what can they do that’s consistent.
Jen: I completely agree with that, with some behaviors. Although one caveat I would say right now is especially around exercise, some is better than none. More is better than less. But I would say in the times that we’re in right now, if you aren’t used to strenuous exercise, starting small, starting with 30-minutes-a-day walks, things like that. You don’t want to stress your body too much right now because that can weaken your immune system. That would be the only caveat that I would put on that guidance around building resiliency from that podcast episode.
Tanya: So, don’t go out and immediately try to become a distance runner.
Jen: Exactly. If you want to, over the next several months start with 1 mile a day, get used to it. That’s why microsteps are great. Celebrate those milestones. You want to run 1 mile, you celebrate that because having some gratitude and some joy right now and being kind and compassionate with yourself is really important.
Tanya: Cool, I’m striking distance runner off of my to-do list for today. A lot of us are feeling a lot of emotions, and those emotions could be across the spectrum. Is it okay to be feeling those emotions or should we be trying to contain them at all? I know that you talked to a couple of folks on the podcast about that.
Jen: First of all, it’s 100 percent okay to not be okay.
What we’re going through, what we’re dealing with, it’s hard. It’s scary. It’s all of those things. Emotions are interesting. We all have them. Emotions are information. You don’t have to let your emotions drag you down the river. But the interesting thing about emotions is that the majority of us have been taught that our emotions are a sign of weakness.
On the podcast, I talked with Dr. Christine Moutier and she’s the chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Dr. Christine Moutier: Let’s start with the home environment. For a child who’s having an upset moment and crying, to be sent to their room until they’re ready to put on their good happy face and come out and be a good boy or a good girl, this is the message that many of us grew up within our home environment—that sadness and anger were completely unacceptable and actually bad. On an unconscious level I think we have this layer of that is a sign of weakness and shame and badness, so we have to hide that.
Dr. Dacher Keltner: That’s one of the big fallacies that science of emotion is correcting.
Jen: Dr. Dacher Keltner is the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
Dr. Dacher: I got to consult on the film “Inside Out” and the central question that they were grappling with is sadness. Pete Docter, the director, wanted sadness to be the main character. The executive team did not, because there is this view out in our culture that sadness is bad, it’s dangerous, it incapacitates you. Pete wanted to say sadness has its place, it has its wisdom, it has its depth. And he won an Academy Award in a billion-dollar movie and that was the genius of the film.
Jen: A healthier approach would be to say feelings of all sorts are just normal, they are agnostic, there is no judgement about them as they happen for people. It is how we process and it is what we do with them and learning to control our behavior in response to those feelings.
So it’s really important to have this awareness of not only our emotions, but being able to be aware of other people’s emotions can teach you how to deal with others, how to interact with others, how to engage with others. And we talked about mindfulness meditation. A meditation is a great practice to give you that ability to recognize your emotions in the moment and then choose whether or not you’re going to let those emotions take you away, whether you’re going to go down that river or you’re going to say, hey, you know what? These are just emotions. This is normal. I don’t have to be a slave to what I’m feeling. I, as a human being, have the ability to choose whether or not this information or whether or not what I’m feeling is true or it’s not.
Laurie: If I notice that I’m experiencing really strong emotion, or for me, I have a tendency to feel overwhelmed, so I use the breath, like I do a mini-mindful breathing meditation to just stop and allow things to settle. And I ask myself “what's important right now.” So, I use it for focus when I’m feeling a strong emotion, I use it to self-regulate or down regulate the emotion to create a little space and actually allow the emotion to complete its sine wave, if you will. Every emotion has a curve, they last about 90 seconds, but we feed it with thoughts, and we get all worked up and jacked up and it could last for a day or two. By creating a little space and just allowing it to be here, then the emotion doesn’t control or affect my behavior.
Jen: That’s especially relevant right now. There’s a lot of sadness. There’s a lot of grief for the loss of life, the loss of normalcy, the loss of routine. And that can create immense sadness in people.
We need to allow ourselves to feel that and to learn the wisdom from it, but also to not get stuck there. To create healthy habits, to realize and to recognize that we’re there, and to learn from our emotions what we need to learn, but to also not get stuck.
Tanya: As we’re in this new world, what specific actions can we take to make working from home in particular in this situation more supportable? What specifically are you doing to stay sane and grounded right now?
Jen: When I talk[ed] to Annie Dean and she’s part of Deloitte Consulting’s workforce transformation group, we talked about new rules for virtual or remote work.
Annie Dean: Sit down with yourself, think about what your day needs to look like in order for you to be optimally successful. In terms of the work that you produce, the team environment that you create, the environment that you have at home, and how you physically and mentally feel. Maybe that means that you think about the fact that you’re much more productive in the morning and you start to protect your time that way. Maybe you know that you need access to the outdoors for an hour a day. Whatever it is for you, it really is a thoughtful process of identifying how you work best, what environment works for you, and what you need in a day in order to build that in.
In the way that I’ve been dealing with this COVID process, by setting the boundaries and communicating to the people who matter, my team at work and my children at home, and letting them know when I’m going to be available and sticking to that, has eliminated the guilt for me because I know I’m doing what I said I was going to do. If I didn’t take the time to set those boundaries and those expectations, I would be feeling really underwater right now. But just as you said, I’ve been able to show up in a way that’s consistent with my own intentions. That’s where I feel relief.
Jen: We’ve all been very quickly thrown into this environment where we are home all the time now and we are working from home. So, a lot of the advice, the discussion that Annie and I had was around how do you work from home in a way that allows you to be productive and engaged in your work and with your colleagues, but that it also allows you to live your life.
One of the things we talk about is that when you work virtually or when you work from home, there aren’t these natural kinds of start and stops to the workday. There’s no commute times. How do you create that schedule for yourself? And scheduling and blocking time, using your calendar as your ally. Sitting down with yourself and thinking about what your day really needs to look like in order for you to be successful. Think about the team environment that you want to create. But also think about the needs of anybody that is living in your household and put those things on your calendars, being clear and open with your colleagues about what that looks like for you and what your needs are and encouraging them to do the same.
I had said at some point in the podcast that on my calendar I have breakfast, my dinner, time for workout, and bedtime. A lot of people laugh at that, but it’s really about creating that structure and that routine for yourself. And being open, but also being flexible. Well, we all know that life doesn’t always work out the way that we think it is.
Depending on what your team looks like, where people are working from, be flexible with your work hours and team norms around work hours that work for everybody, expectations around response times to emails, norms around if I need to reach you or if there’s an emergency, how are we going to communicate with each other? Are we going to pick up the phone and call? Are we going to text message? Not relying on email or everything because we all have way too many emails. Coming up with those together as a team and having everybody be open about what their needs are so the entire team can support each other’s needs, that really creates this collective sense of connection, of teaming, but allows people to also truly integrate their life and work while they’re working from home, while they’re working remotely, and create these barriers or boundaries and natural pauses in their day that kind of feel like they get removed when you’re home 100 percent of the time.
Tanya: It begs the question, is work-life balance a thing or is it more like a work-life blend that people are starting to discover, especially those that aren’t used to working from home?
Jen: I’ve always talked about it as work-life integration, because I don’t think that there’s ,truly, ever a balance, nor should we set that expectation, because when we set that expectation that it’s going to be balance, many of us feel like we’re just constantly failing at it because we’re either giving more to work or we’re giving more to our personal lives. So we feel guilty on either side. I’ll talk about it as work-life integration.
This kind of really immediate and quick transition to work from home—even for me and I worked from home for many, many years—for the first couple of weeks it felt like work and life were kind of sitting on top of each other. But people are quickly adjusting. And I think boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
Tanya: One of the things that I’m hearing a lot right now is self-care, people doing self-care, showing some compassion for yourself. I know this is something you talked with Laurie Cameron.
Jen: Why is self-compassion so hard for us?
Laurie: That’s been studied quite a bit. There is a belief that’s deep in us, it’s not conscious, but a lot of us believe that if I meet failure or a setback or if I say something that hurts someone, or I turn in a project or I missed the deadline or it’s over budget, and I meet that moment with kindness, I’m going to do it again or I’m not going to get better, I’m not going to grow. So, we have this inner critic, this really harsh voice, I think to protect us, to keep us safe. Our inner critic means well, it really wants to keep us out of trouble. So, it's like “oh! man, I can’t believe it, you dropped the bomb, you dropped the ball,” and it’s really not helping us, because what we were seeing in the research is that the inner critic actually puts us in a state of low motivation and we are less likely to take risk, we are less likely to take on the big project ...
Jen: Goes back to survival mode?
Laurie: So, self-compassion actually shifts us out of that and one of [the] things we were doing this week is, we practice this in the moment on the fly, three-step practice, and then we also practiced a wonderful tool called a letter from a mentor and we write a letter to ourselves and some people do it from a mentor, other people might do it from a high school teacher or a good friend, and we write ... it’s a journaling exercise. This one, Jen, takes four minutes and you write a letter to have the voice of that person give you advice for a difficult situation you are in. We did that one and then we discussed, had a rich discussion on which one of these was most effective for you. For a lot of people in the room, they love the on the fly three steps, and for other people, they find the letter a much easier way to offer them self-compassion.
Jen: It’s someone else’s voice?
Laurie: Yes, and they believe that that other person wishes them well and that their wise, and ... Jen: It’s not really another person?
It’s really yourself, which is the kind of the cool magic, it’s a side door and ...
Jen: So, I don’t know if this is actually a self-compassion or not, but when I get in those moments, I always say to myself “tell the negative committee in your head to sit down and shut up.” (laughs)
Tanya: Jen, this has been a really great conversation. You’ve given us a lot of things, actual concrete ideas to implement. What do you have coming up on the podcast?
Jen: We have a couple [of] episodes coming out in the near future. We have one on the science of kindness with Dr. Kelly Harding. We talk about self-compassion, kindness for others, kindness for ourselves. The conversation is based on a book that she wrote called The Rabbit Effect. And she looks at how kindness can impact health outcomes for patients. It’s a really fascinating conversation.
And then we have another episode coming out with Dr. Motier. I talk to her specifically about the mental health impacts of COVID and the crisis that we’re going through now. We talk about self-isolation, we talk about human connection. It’s actually a really hopeful emotional conversation, really positive conversation about the lessons that we’re learning now around mental health and mental health care and where she believes this is going to go in the future because of the lessons that we’re learning now. It’s a really great and powerful episode.
Tanya: Great. Can’t wait to hear it. Jen Fisher, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been fantastic.
Jen: Thank you.
Tanya: Jen Fisher’s podcast is called WorkWell and you should definitely check it out. I listened to a lot of episodes while prepping for our conversation and I have to tell you, I’m hooked! It’s really good. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts.
Stay safe, be well … and we’ll see you back here in two weeks.
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