Today's post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member Natalie Bickford, Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer at Sanofi.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has brought us many and varied challenges over the last year. At around this moment in 2020 we believed the Coronavirus would be a short, sharp shock - terrible in its' health and economic impact, but likely to be over by the summer. But as this global pandemic took hold, bringing us a seemingly never ending series of lockdowns and challenging variants, it has become clear that this virus is the equivalent of a chronic disease - whose symptoms we can at times manage, but that isn't going away anytime soon.

With this has come tremendous stress for us as workers. Whether that be the financial worries of furlough, the challenge of home schooling our children while doing full time jobs from our kitchen tables (which, by the way, I have come to realize is almost impossible), pretending that we can run our teams fully virtually at all times, or worrying about our aging parents who we can't visit, we are truly testing the depths of our resilience.

For a while we enjoyed the novelty of homeworking, taking advantage of warm weather and the opportunity to be with our families, then we moved into “dig deep” mode, using up our energy reserves to see us through the early winter months. As we moved into 2021, however, for many of us the reserves are depleted, the news headlines are deeply wearying, and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight.

And so, we need to take control of our physical and emotional wellbeing right now, and I believe that there are many small things we can do to make a real difference. Here are some tips that I have found particularly useful and easy to implement over the last few months to improve my work energy:

Keep ten minutes in every hour for yourself

Multiple research studies show that we are far more productive and focused at work if we take regular short breaks. I have started scheduling Zoom meetings for 50 minutes instead of an hour, and use the ten-minute break to get up, stretch, move around and refocus. These ten minutes can be used for anything that revitalizes you, like a breath of fresh air, or a cuddle with the dog. Headspace is an excellent app for short moments of meditation.

Maintain good sleep hygiene

The current context is messing with our sleep, and when we don't sleep well, our work anxieties grow. Some of the most effective advice is simple. Turn off your screens at least an hour before bed, remove all digital tech from your bedroom (buy an alarm clock if you usually use your phone to wake you up, so as to remove all temptation), and maintain a fixed bed and wake up time - even during the weekend.

Invest in a light box

I have found it very helpful during this winter to have a “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)” lamp in my workspace to maintain my mood and relieve stress levels. They come in all shapes and prices, and provide a warm and energizing light backdrop for virtual working.

Find your end-of-day stress reliever

To maintain our work energy, we need to find ways to recover at the end of every day, rather than waiting for the weekend or a vacation. This is truer than ever right now. For me, this tends to be a 30- minute evening walk before cooking family dinner, but it could encompass a whole range of activities from running, through yoga, to your favorite indoor hobby. The idea here is to decompress and take some personal time after switching off the laptop and before starting your evening routine.

Stay connected with colleagues

And finally, we should try and stay connected to colleagues outside the confines of structured meetings. With my colleagues, we have introduced a 30-minute drop-in virtual coffee break a couple of times a week, to recreate our informal communication that is so lacking in the virtual workplace. This relieves some of the work tension and allows us short moments to relax and laugh together. 

So, there are certainly small things that we can do to manage our work stress and energy during the ongoing pandemic. Many companies also provide employee assistance programs, which can be of great benefit.    

My final thought on this topic is don't feel the need to try to be a superhero! This is a really challenging moment in our history, and we should cut ourselves some slack (and maybe an extra slice of chocolate cake), while also trying to find our own personal way of getting through it.

Do you have your own strategies for maintaining your mental and physical health during this difficult time? Tell us about them in the comments section!

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