Finding Normal in an Abnormal Time
With nearly all nonessential employees in New York state working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, the seismic shift from office setting to home computer can be disconcerting at minimum. For some, the change in routine and schedule, coupled with the general stress and anxiety of coping with the crisis, can lead to depression, cognitive issues, and a sense of confusion.
Robert P. Delprino, professor of psychology and assistant dean of the School of Natural and Social Sciences, spoke about the pandemic and how it may affect workers facing the new reality.
Delprino is an expert in organizational psychology and the stressors facing first responders. He has also served as a visiting fellow for the Corrections and Law Enforcement Family Support (CLEFS) Program at the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, as a volunteer member of a regional critical incident stress management support team for first responders, and as an Employee Assistance Program coordinator for New York State. As an advisory board member for the former New York Disaster Counseling Coalition, he participated in the delivery of programs to first responder couples affected by the events and aftermath of 9/11.
What should people know about the way they’re feeling right now?
The stress, the anxiety that we have, the lack of sleep we're experiencing, the confusion—there’s a name for that. It’s called normal. We know that we as human beings are built psychologically and physically to handle stress. It’s been programmed in us over the eons in how we’ve survived. But what happens when our usual coping abilities are overwhelmed? That’s what’s happening now. It affects people on a physical level, a cognitive level, and a behavioral level. What I mean by physical is they may feel exhaustion, they may feel weak, they may have headaches, and there may be confusion. They may feel like they have a short attention span. There may be short-term memory disturbances, and people may feel angry, anxious, depressed—like they’re not in control anymore. Behaviorally, people may see a change in their activity level. Their sleep may be disturbed, their eating habits may change, they may startle more easily. These are all normal things that happen when people are faced with a critical incident, and I think this qualifies as a critical incident.
A lot of people are finding that working from home isn’t as easy as they’d expected. Why is that?
Thinking about working at home, it sounds like a dream. But think of all these frustrations in terms of dealing with technology and learning new skill sets now. It’s not like we had time to learn this. We’re learning on the fly right now. It’s not a time to master it; it’s just time to get it done and accommodate students as best we can. Those symptoms I talked about, while they’re to be expected and somewhat normal, the concern is that if they go on for too long a period of time, then there’s the possibility of mental health issues, similar to what might be seen in post-traumatic stress, in addition to this general fatigue. If they go on for long periods of time, then we start getting some severe or serious mental health issues.
What can supervisors do to ease the burden on employees working from home in this situation?
In addition to giving hope that we will get through this, I think it’s important for a leader to acknowledge how terrible what’s happening is, and let people know that they may be going through some of these physiological, behavioral, cognitive reactions. It can be helpful to remind others that their feelings or anger are legitimate, but the focus needs to be on problem solving and not blaming. They cannot make everything all right.
Education is part of it. Offer resources to assist employees, including when it’s time to seek help. I think we have to be more proactive at an organizational level. Besides just thanking people and acknowledging it, one thing that is really important to help people get through things like this is social support, especially from peers.
Research shows that emotional support and peer support can really serve as a moderator to negative effects of an incident like this. There are different types of support. There’s emotional support, there’s informational support, there’s appraisal support. All these types of social support really provide protection from psychological, personal, and physical stress.
Social support can impact personal health and work performance. So it really makes sense to actually build support systems and groups for employees. It’s just checking in. How are you doing? What are you dealing with? What’s the hard stuff? What’s the good stuff you’re dealing with? What are some successes we’ve had? I know we kind of do that sometimes, but we don’t always make it more formalized, to be part of the process. These are conversations we may typically have had at the office, when we saw our co-workers, but it is still easy to do with remote meetings. We can still be socially supportive while socially distancing ourselves.
What’s the next step for an organization like Buffalo State going through this crisis?
While we often respond to what’s in front of us, this is also an opportunity to start looking ahead a little bit. What does this mean for higher education? For example, we’ve had this technology for years to teach remotely, to go online for some time. That does not mean we’ve always done it well. What we’re going through now may push us to more fully integrate this online stuff and how we deliver college degree programs and education. This is an opportunity to develop better and easier resources for students, staff, and faculty.
We have to remember there are opportunities here. We’re so focused on what’s going on right now, and rightfully so, but six months or a year from now, what does this mean? We may be at a tipping point for how we deliver courses and degrees. Higher education also needs to rethink how they do strategic planning, and planning for the unexpected. A year ago, if I had suggested considering how to plan for a pandemic, I may not have been taken seriously. Well, here we are.
Institutions can use tools such as scenario planning, which involves looking into the future and preparing for different possibilities and how to respond to them. No one can control this, but techniques such as scenario planning can give us a sense of what the future might bring and prepare for the “what ifs.”