If you still have a job while tens of millions of Americans file for unemployment benefits, you are in a privileged position right now. But that doesn’t mean your performance is not being affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Even if your job is meaningful to you, it can be understandably hard to stay motivated or even care much about it during a global pandemic that is infecting millions and has killed over 187,000 people worldwide.
“The sudden reminders of our mortality, and the suddenness with which people are dying can conjure existential crises, can inevitably make us wonder what our legacies are as we are seeing so many people’s lives cut short,” said Kristin Bianchi, a Maryland-based licensed psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Behavior Change.
Bianchi said her therapist colleagues have reported that their patients feel apathy, restlessness and futility around their jobs right now.
Disengaging from work is an appropriate way to manage your energy.
Emily, a New York City-based digital marketer for an airline, transitioned to working from home in March. She has noticed that her job, which used to bring her satisfaction, now feels “a little bit pointless.”
Emily said she still feels some satisfaction from helping to answer travel questions, but said the worst feeling is when she doesn’t have answers to give customers about when they are going to be able to travel again. “I go right back to feeling like I’m not doing anything for society,” she said.
She is not alone in feeling this way. And if you are taking care of a sick loved one or handling new responsibilities during quarantine, managing your career may be the last agenda item on your to-do list ― or the last thing you have energy for.
“We can't judge ourselves based on what we were able to do 'pre-pandemic' before physical distancing restrictions were put into place.”
On top of working from home or dealing with stress from unemployment, many parents are also dealing with teaching and child care responsibilities. According to a March survey of 15,000 U.S. adults by Pew Research Center, about one-third of those living with children under 12 years old reported that handling child care responsibilities during the coronavirus outbreak has been very or somewhat difficult for them.
Disengaging from work is a completely reasonable and normal response to the stress and exhaustion of enduring a pandemic lockdown. It’s also an appropriate way to manage your energy when you are emotionally drained.
Patrick O’Malley, a grief and trauma psychotherapist based in Texas, noted that a lot of people are missing out on the things that usually energize their lives, like “exercise, family, church, fill-in-the-blank,” and may be experiencing an energy imbalance that is impacting their work.
If you don’t have enough emotional resources to invest in your job, O’Malley said that disengaging from work and just fulfilling what you need to do to stay employed is a reasonable energy management technique, because you may be at a surviving level, not a thriving level.
“As your energy comes back, you can do more, but part of managing this energy is to try to not get compromised,” he said. “I think it’s very reasonable to say, ‘I’m going to be real clear about what I can do and be intentional about it. It may not be at the level I functioned before, but I will fulfill what I have to get done.’”
“Sometimes the advice I get is to stay optimistic, and honestly, trying to stay optimistic can be exhausting.”
Here’s how to maintain your job and mental health if you don’t care about work right now.
Recognize these feelings are not necessarily forever. If you are feeling disengaged now, O’Malley advises against thinking you will feel that way for the long term.
Instead, reframe your self-critical thoughts into more compassionate language like, ”‘I am having to adapt to circumstances that are so unique and unusual, and it’s not a character issue. I don’t have bad character because I’ve got low energy, I’ve got low energy because of all these things I am thinking about, worried about, trying to take care of, and I don’t have my usual resources to gain energy,’” he said.
If you are feeling depleted, “I would strongly suggest you take charge of your self-care. You have to think about how do you fill your tank proactively,” said Lisa Orbé-Austin, a licensed psychologist and executive coach in New York City. She suggested structuring activities you can do alone that replenish you, like meditation and exercise.
It’s OK not to be OK. Don’t fight the bad moods, and know that you’re not alone in feeling this way, Emily recommended. “Sometimes the advice I get is to stay optimistic, and honestly, trying to stay optimistic can be exhausting,” she said, adding that she’d rather know her feelings are normal and “have some comfort in that while I work on my own long-term strategy.“
If it’s hard for you to take care of yourself right now, know that that’s normal, too. “Be very self-compassionate and know that this is not an easy time to feel self-actualized and growing,” O’Malley said.
Accept “good enough” as your new standard. Reframe what exceeding expectations can mean for you right now.
“My first and biggest piece of advice is that, for right now, it’s important to accept ‘good enough’ as the standard for job performance. No matter what we do for a living, our cognitive and emotional resources are going to be heavily depleted right now,” Bianchi said. “We are all, to some degree, working with at least one hand tied behind our backs. We can’t judge ourselves based on what we were able to do ‘pre-pandemic’ before physical distancing restrictions were put into place.”
To get work you don’t care about done, try task management. “When do you feel most productive?” is a question Orbé-Austin said you can ask yourself, then use the answer to execute tasks with the limited time you have in a day.
Orbé-Austin also recommended task management tools like the Pomodoro method to break up big deadlines into manageable tasks you can take on in small blocks of time. “The more structure you create to your workday, the more effective you can be at getting things done that you don’t want to get done, the things you don’t care about,” she said.
Push back against your negative thoughts by grounding yourself in the present moment. If you find yourself going down a negative spiral of thoughts like “Nothing I do matters,” Bianchi said it can be difficult to access our rational thought processes. In these intense negative mood states, one of the healthiest things we can do to break that pattern is “to redirect our attention on something in the present,” Bianchi said.
These present-focused activities can be basic tasks you do every day. “It could be a household chore like loading the dishwasher or folding laundry, it could be an art or craft, it could be journaling,” Bianchi said.
If you feel like your work has no value and doesn’t matter, O’Malley also suggested journaling and conversations with friends can be helpful ways to straighten out the endless negative loops in your head. For many people, “It’s helpful to journal to get it externalized,” he said. “And that may be another tool ... that in six months I can go back and look at that, and see what really feels still true and what was really more circumstantial.”
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