“Finally, I have some time to breath. For some reason, I only have a few meetings in the diary this week. Time to get my real work done and check-in with some colleagues and friends! But I cannot bring myself to do anything. I am staring at the screen. No intelligent thought is leaving my brain. I know, I could go for a walk. A bit of self-care in these challenging times! But I just feel so deflated. What is going on? I feel ok but something is ajar.”
This is a story a colleague shared when we checked-in at the start of a call. During the following days, we both heard many variations of this same story from coachees, colleagues and friends. In fact, we felt much the same.
After a brief period of excitement and the hope of a little more normality, we have been pulled straight back into the struggles of making it through the pandemic once again. But why does it feel different this time? What is happening to make so many of us feel drained and demotivated? Surely with spring around the corner, vaccinations being rolled out, and some light at the end of the tunnel, we should be feeling more upbeat? Perhaps not….
Our colleague Thomas Hellwig shared with us this this model of the emotional phases of disaster response which helps to make sense of this collective feeling of exhaustion.
Adapted from Zunin & Myers as cited in DeWolfe, D. J., 2000
Now that the adrenaline from the first “heroic” phase of the crisis has fizzled out, and the altruism and optimism of the “honeymoon” phase has dwindled, we find ourselves in the “disillusionment” phase of our adjustment to the new normal. As optimism turns to discouragement and stress continues to take a toll, negative reactions like physical exhaustion are becoming more prevalent. This disillusionment phase is often extended by one or more trigger events, including the anniversary of the disaster, which we find ourselves in right now.(i)
We may be exhausted by an increase of work or from the anxiety and boredom that comes from a lack of work. We are likely to be overwhelmed from playing multiple roles at the same time; being a star performer at work, star teacher and parent at home and star carer for our sick relatives. In addition, there seems nothing to look forward to. The things that usually bring us hope and joy, like a dinner out with friends or the anticipation of a nice vacation have disappeared into a distant future with only a vague idea of when they might materialise again. We have begun to realise the return to (a new) normal is a marathon not a sprint!
In our conversations with colleagues, coachees and friends, we not only heard about the widespread pandemic exhaustion but also great examples of coping mechanisms to help us hang on in there, take care of our mental health and support each other as we move slowly towards the recovery phase of our pandemic journey.
Understanding and recognising our emotions is vital for our well-being. Emotions can be our body’s way of communicating with us. Recognising, naming and accepting them for what they are can help reduce feelings of overwhelm. As Vincent Van Gogh said, “Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realising it.”
How are you feeling right now? What causes you to feel exhausted? During coaching sessions we are using the Stress APGAR a lot at the moment. It is a simple protocol that can help us check-in with our own and other’s levels of stress. Once we can start recognising our stress levels it becomes easier to take some action.
We started this blog with a story. The colleague that shared their story explained afterwards the release they felt from retelling how they were feeling. Often when we share our emotions, we can find reassurance that others feel the same. Who could you retell your story of feeling exhausted to?
The group coaching methodology pioneered by Manfred Kets de Vries and incorporated into KDVI’s Leadership Reflection Circles builds on the healing element of telling our own stories, as well as the “chimney sweep effect“ from the cathartic impact of sharing. Being able to relate our own situation to that of others brings comfort that we are not alone.
How often do we just do nothing? Constant cognitive engagement, the distraction of digital devices and anxiety-induced busyness fill our working days and beyond. In Manfred Kets de Vries’ article entitled The Importance of Doing Nothing he explains that “doing nothing has never really been acceptable. We associate it with irresponsibility, wasting our life. Most of us feel guilty if we don’t have something to do.”
If we are going to keep some energy in our batteries for the coming months, it is critical we allow ourselves time to rest. It is ok to just take a break and do nothing. There may be moments when high-energy sprints are required, and we need to find ways for ourselves and our teams to follow those with reflection and recovery time.
Attempting to move from exhaustion to being (re-)energised in one step is likely impossible. But we can focus our response on micro action(ii) - tiny shifts that can have an exponential impact and lead to macro changes. Trying to change too much too quickly can backfire. Small actions we have sufficient resources to achieve and to continue are more likely to give us a feeling of success. And from there momentum can grow.
We can compare micro actions to a domino effect. Incredibly, a domino the size of a tic-tac (remember those tiny green and orange sweets we used to shake?!) can eventually topple a domino the size of the Empire State Building! Don’t underestimate the potential impact small things can have- like one coachee said, just getting outside and seeing the daylight for a few minutes each day can make a difference.
Micro-actions, in action!
(i) https://www.samhsa.gov/dtac/recovering-disasters/phases-disaster and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-mDHygVh1g
For some of us these feelings of exhaustion can be a sign that we need further support, especially if this exhaustion does not go away. If you or someone you know is in need, you are not alone. Many organisations have Employee Assistance Programmes available. Outside of work, this link also provides a set of useful resources in the UK.
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