By Erik Bean, Ed.D.
Associate University Research Chair
Center for Leadership Studies & Organizational Research
PART I.The Psychological Shift: Dealing with Rapid Onset of Change and the COVID-19 Response
PART I.The Psychological Shift: Dealing with Rapid Onset of Change and the COVID-19 Response
COVID-19 is an unprecedented world event. In fact, if we look back over other epidemics such as SARS back in 2003, current reactivity and community response ushers in some parallels witnessed before. However, as the world has encountered a variety of crises over the years, each unprecedented event provides a uniquely different set of variables. COVID-19 has challenged us to now work differently for our own protection. We have risen to a technological age, where telework has presented new opportunities to engage flexibility, structure, and more. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “more than 26 million Americans—about 16% of the total workforce—now work remotely at least part of the time.” However, many jobs require a different level of focus, a different or varying acumen from which engagement of the role typically occurs. The luxury of “choosing” to work from home or going in to work has recently been fundamentally modified as the world deals with the phenomenon of COVID-19.
The urgency of arresting the virus has ushered in the need for many organizations to move swiftly into a work from home format, and for many people to self-quarantine. The psychology of working from home is now con-joined by the extraneous variables of family occupying the same workspace. It is a time where we can feel the shock of change, and not just any change but what I will call the ROC or Rapid Onset of Change. This is a term I am borrowing from the medical community and one that emergency room staff know quite well. COVID-19 has not provided us the mental luxury of work-pacing for our lives any longer, as business and educational institutions move rapidly to react and adjust.
This is the first of a four part blog series on adjusting to ROC and how you can adapt to the potentials of this challenge by doing a deeper analysis into a new way of working and living. We will cover in this first exploration an understanding of ROC and how the first of four imperatives will help you manage to the rapid changes occurring in your life now.
ROC Rapid Onset of Change and Worklife
In the medical community, a rapid onset or acute onset of symptomology can happen during emergency room responses where, as example, a person who is brought to a hospital for cardiac symptoms (such as shortness of breath, fatigue or chest discomfort) can suddenly and unexpectedly progress to a full blown heart attack. Emergency rooms must work quickly to always attempt to rapidly adjust: to identify quickly the underlying causes and determine optimal care needed to address the issue in the emergency moment. I reference this example because - although it may seem extreme - healthcare professionals know all too well the idea of change that turns the corner at a rapid pace, and they have learned to prepare and work exceptionally well to respond to and adapt to change at a moment’s notice.
But in the work world where many do not have such preparatory training, such occurrences can be globally altering to an industry or society where there has been no such precedent. Working in corporate enterprise systems and a variety of other industries, we know change is typically paced, providing the chance to adapt over some length of time. But the rapidity of our current dynamic has ushered in the need to change NOW, to modify the way we work and move throughout the day in the immediate shift of circumstance. As I write this my son was just sent the following picture by a fellow student as a commentary of moving to online classes at the local community college he attends.
Many of his teachers are now struggling with the challenges of moving to an online teaching platform. Never mind the daunting task of dealing with a new learning platform, but also reallocating their active teaching disposition from a ground instructor to an online instructor in a matter of days. Struggles like these are emerging all around us in the wake of COVID-19, but how should we deal it?
ROC-IRM Rapid Onset of Change-Incident Response Management
It’s important to understand how we can take advantage of our responsivity and reaction to this sudden and compelling onset of change to our daily work lives. Let’s talk a bit about incident response management. This term can be found most notably within IT and technology management. According to Science Digest, “Incident Response Management involves developing and managing the capability to respond to and recover from disruptive and destructive events.” Such industries - like IT - have developed ways to handle extreme situations. Much of what we have experienced in the shift of suddenly being thrust into a new work/home environment was not anticipated nor planned for any of us, but we can learn from some of the best on how to mitigate the change in a healthy and robust way. There are four primary and important opportunities present in every extreme. We will cover the first of four in this blog post. With this rapid shift in work let’s do a quick analysis of the first of the four ways in which to deal with this adjustment.
#1 - Make the Shift to an “Intellectual Focus”
The hardest part of a sudden change is the gap between what we were doing and what we are now thinking. Oftentimes there is an “emotional” lag. A good example is the process of surgery. As part of any surgical procedure there is some level of anesthetic administered to alleviate the pain. It is a very complex process and the level of anesthetic depends on the invasiveness of the procedure. This process allows patients to not have to endure or feel the pain of the work necessary to help alleviate the condition. It is only after the patient awakes they they begin to feel the gradual inclusion of the pain. Once a patient is released to go home, they will typically be prescribed some variation of medication to help deal with the pain from surgery in the weeks ahead as the body continues to heal. This is where the potential implications of our emotions may set in. Here is how this happens. The body during surgery receives the trauma of surgeons cutting to remove or repair issues. The body acknowledges pain naturally, but during such a process, anesthesia blocks the pain and is consequently removed from the natural response to pain. Soon after surgery the body begins to understand the magnitude of what has happened and in some ways internally grieves what has happened. It is a nuanced process that occurs amongst the healing that is required for the body to undertake. It can make patients post surgically depressed or sad in the weeks after surgery. The result manifests in a form of lability, like unexplained crying or sadness, the flux of emotions. But why does this happen? It is primarily because our mind and body were not communicating at the time during the surgery. Rapid change works somewhat like the example above. It doesn’t allow for the coalescence of mind and body to adjust in synchronicity.
As a professional licensed counslor, some of the clients I have worked with recently amidst the COVID-19 outbreak describe this feeling of maladjustment. The sudden onset and move from the corporate desk to a home office (or even for those who were already working from home but acquiring more family in proximity) are feeling the emotional lag setting in. That part of our “feeling” brain called the “amygdala” is where we live when we emotionally reason or ruminate, or when we simply “feel” and react emotionally. It is where we go when we grieve, when we are angry or upset. When activated, it consumes a lot of cortical real estate as well. It is also the fastest responding component of the brain to respond to threats to self.
What I am teaching these professionals to do is to attempt to recognize this component and to move forward to the “front brain.” Logic and reason need to be “turned on” again. I do not dismiss emotions in all of this, but instead, I encourage clients to schedule a time in the day to honor the emotions. They can take this time to reflect, to write their feelings out regarding the sudden and rapid shift in work-life as a “daily movement” journal. Journaling in itself allows the brain to process many things that if left to its own, will continue on into the night fracturing sleep. By journaling even a few lines you are ensuring that you are also honoring your emotions so that you can stay healthy and get a good night’s sleep.
Going back to the emergency room protocol; doctors and nurses engage that front brain aspect routinely. They are aware and always focused as they are immersed in an “objective mode” of thinking, processing quickly through a situation, shining an intellectual focus on what is needed at the critical moment. When you remain in those front-brain optics, the limbic system (the emotional part of the brain where the amygdala resides) dims like a light bulb. You can control (through a “managed focus” process) what part you are engaging at any time, but it requires the practice of oriented awareness throughout the day. Working from home is a time to explore the possibilities in you. Asking the following questions will help you jump-start the process. This is a time to problem solve and analyze when met with the rapid onset of change and this can be applied to any kind of change event. You may have already and inadvertently explored these questions before but if you haven’t then take stock, because we are still in the middle of the storm and change is something to embrace now more than ever. Reflect and see if you can answer these:
- What is needed for you to do the job right now most effectively and realistically?
- What workspace have you appropriated to manage through this event?
- What is your daily routine now? Do you have one?
Each of these questions are important to your response to a “new way” of adapting and working. With ROC, you need to do a quick analysis of where you are at now and what is needed for the work you do. Work on establishing what we refer to in counseling as “stabilization.” This means, the ability to balance process amidst the chaos. Here, logic trumps emotions. It’s important to asses and to engage “problem solving” which is much different than “coping.” According to an article from the US National Library of Medicine, research on the benefits of using problem-solving can also help us with how we cope with issues. Problem solving allows us a way to examine issues and reduce emotional reasoning that has the potential to confuse thinking.
As you asses, you will of course want to stay connect. Is there opportunity to use a visual platform like Zoom or Collaborate? These platforms can allow you to also enhance the ways you communicate, finding efficiencies in work process while still maintaining connection. Such tools have also come a long way. Zoom has the potential to change backgrounds, adding a variety of locations and environments that change the day to day doldrums of the workplace we may have been used to. Do you need technology, a better phone, a laptop over a desktop, or anything else vital to performing your job in the best way possible?
#2 - Assess Your Workspace
When it comes to workspace many changes occurred so quickly during the onset of COVID-19 that many felt the extreme sense of overwhelmedness, moving us into emergency room-like circumstances. Without a doubt, our workspace is a very important place that has been cultivated and understood in our minds. Being at home however doesn’t mean the loss of this, but rather renegotiating the office to home environment in a quick and meaningful way. Because you may also share the space now, it is important to work with the family to do a quick diagnostic. Talk through appropriating space. Independent realms of working and living should be honored by finding where in your house you want to work. You can reclaim your former workspace wherever you worked before but now it will look and feel different, however, what is most important is that you identify where that space will be, even if it’s in a small corner of the room.
Appropriating workspace also means that you consider the most ideal place in your home where you can work. One of the things with a rapid change in environmental conditions is the need to re-appropriate conditions in our proximity, this is within our control. Honoring our former independent realms of living, where partners went off to work and children to school, everyone had this component in place but now it must be re-appropriated. This is healthy for your entire family as well to engage in the conversation, stake out the space and talk about honoring those spaces. This can be achieved when we stake out our space to work, whether it is from a kitchen table to the corner of a room, even the garage if you have one. Designating that spot, if you haven’t already done so or you want to re-asses, is an important step. Analyzing the space, modifying it for your needs is healthy and pulls in creative ways to organize your environment. We must honor our independence and psychological need for our own space through a modified system for now so engage the potentials.
#3 - The Importance of Routine
Routine is paramount now. If you haven’t already felt a sense of feeling like a rat in a never ending tunnel, then you will surely begin to feel it without an established routine over time. When that never-ending feeling sets in, it is the feeling that you are working all day and sometimes into the night from your phone or computer without a break. Your meals become scattered, exercise of any type, even a stretch, goes out the window. Morning to night fuse into a dreamlike sequence. Why? Because routine has been breached, severed in fact. Establishing a routine sets healthy boundaries. Routine offers immediate mentally stabilizing components. Having time for segmented activities from work to participate in exercise or family time creates variety and mentally fosters good thinking. This is the potential that routine can usher in if implemented. For mental health professionals, we know the importance of encouraging routine with those who have anxiety because routine helps re-establish a sense of control in an otherwise unpredictable environment. Getting out of your pajamas and dressing for work should still be part of your routine. This simple act defines the functions of your day. Also, snacks and lunch time breaks help build your resilience during these times. Start formulating a routine not only for yourself but help those around you to do it as well.
Managing to these essentials and leaning into the idea of intellectual focus during the ROC everyone is experiencing will help mitigate the challenges of adjustment and offer a healthy alternative in moving forward with your life.
In the next blog, we will cover one of the most essential aspects of addressing this kind of rapid onset of change and building resilience amidst managed concern.
Blog Series #2
The Psychological Shift: Building Resilience Amidst Managed Concern
One of the major impacts on our psyche is the “fear” reaction activated. Scarcity, living with unknowns and shifting to a “shut-in” routine ushers in emotional reasoning and potentially other issues such as depression and anxiety. But in many ways, the challenge to extremes can allow us to engage another, more beneficial and important aspect of approaching extreme situations as well as developing our own possibilities through incorporating a “managed concern” perspective. In the next installment, Dr. Luster speaks to the idea of “managed concern” and building resilience through the lens of Maslow's hierarchical structure, but instead, using an inverse triangle to build into ourselves the possibilitries inherent even in emergency crisis events. As well, a look into 3 primary resilience-building components that can help maximize potentials in the shift to a new stage of working and living.
Blog Series # 3
The Psychological Shift: Managing the Stress Arc: Evidence-Based Ways to Control Stress
We know that stress can be hugely impacting how we live and work. In fact, it is one of several potentials symptoms in those who have moved through traumatic situations. Psychologist Dana Rose Garfin, PhD, from the University of California, Irvine alongside other researchers have studied people who experienced acute stress after traumatic events. Their report of findings suggests that “individuals were more likely to have negative long-term mental and physical health outcomes, including poor general health; increased pain, disability, and mortality; increased depression, anxiety and psychiatric disorders; and more family conflict (, Vol. 112, No. 1, 2018). For many, things like compassion fatigue from watching news story after news story sets in, for others who have been dealing with stressful circumstances such as taking in family amidst the outbreak or dealing with friends or loved ones sick, some aspects of vicarious trauma to trauma symptomology can occur. In this installment of the “Psychological Shift.” Dr. Luster will cover the most important steps people can take to not only understanding how each of us deals with stress but resourcing that will help manage the stress arc even better.
Blog Series #4
The Psychological Shift: Decision Making in the wake of COVID-19-What’s Better?
In this the final installment of the 4 part blog series, Dr. Luster examines how we are “currently” processing and ren