April 16, 2020

Coaching during COVID-19: What I’m learning from clients about self-care and the new normal

It’s been a difficult few weeks. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that, but I do hope you know that whatever you are feeling, you are surely not alone in feeling that way.

I am feeling it, too, as are many of those I work with.

That’s why I thought it might be useful to share some of the key learnings I have gained from my coaching clients over the past three weeks. While I never share any identifying information or context about my clients, I always learn from them.

And as I coach people through a time of crisis and change, I am learning more than ever. Among the lessons:

We are all grieving.

Collectively and individually, each of us is facing loss. For more people than we would ever wish, the loss of a loved one or a colleague to this awful virus and the illness it causes is the most significant loss of all. But other less earth-shattering losses matter, too. There may also be financial hardship or loss of a job. Such things as a loss of childcare can upend our work and routines. Other issues, such as the loss of freedom to visit with friends and family or simply go out and about as we like seem smaller still — yet they still shake our foundations. Even more subtle, but no less important, is the loss of our sense of identity, who we are as individuals and as a society.

Whatever you might be experiencing, know that grief is a natural human response to loss of all kinds, and we must make room for it. This article shares a good description of the impact of grief on our day-to-day lives. Grief sneaks up on us in many ways, even if it seems like “low-level” grief (I’m not really sure there is such a thing). And it can sap our energy.

Video conferencing is an energy drain.

So many people I am coaching have spoken of the increased number of meetings — more than were ever scheduled before we started working from home — and the constant demand of using video conferencing software. And they report being exhausted.

There are lots of reasons for this, as described in this Wall Street Journal article (behind a paywall). For one, it is harder to maintain interpersonal connection by video with the loss of in-person microexpressions. And of course, maintaining eye contact and managing that contact with multiple people (10-20 or more) at one time is nearly impossible. It’s no wonder people report feeling “hung over” from too much video chatting. A day of staring into our computer cameras leaves even the most experienced FaceTimers among us feeling “fuzzy,” tired, unable to communicate, and generally cranky.

What to do about it? This is a great article about how to end your “work-from-home” workday productively (*not* on camera). Here are some additional tips, and below is a list of ideas from my own experience of “over-Zooming.”

  • Check your calendar at the start of the week and identify at least two meetings that you do not HAVE to attend. Decline them.
  • If you normally hold an hourlong meeting, suggest to everyone upfront that it be limited to 45 minutes, then end on time. When it does, get up and move — preferably away from your screen for the extra 15 minutes.
  • For me, 4-5 hours of videoconferencing each day is about my max. Figure out what your own maximum is, and stick to it.

This is NOT a time for enhanced (or even normal) productivity.

Remember that “working from home” right now, amid a global crisis, is not really a convenience or a vacation, and it’s definitely not a time to be MORE productive. Nobody is really able to get a full eight hours of work done every day amid the myriad worries of our world, and scheduling yourself as if you can is a setup for disaster. All the more reason to limit your Zoom time.

Most of us have added work at home (child care, home schooling, pet care, fixing more meals than we are used to, doing more laundry than we are used to). If we were fortunate enough before the pandemic to have someone to help with some of these tasks, social distancing likely means we don’t have that support any longer.

So, we have our “normal” jobs … our “new normal” (learning to work in new ways, plus all the domestic tasks, plus even more domestic tasks we might not be accustomed to), PLUS we are weighted down by that grief thing I spoke of. Maybe it’s actually not the best time to write the great American novel or learn to weave?

It’s just not possible to be fully productive, and I have been helping clients think about how to communicate with the people they lead, and “let them off the hook” about this. I’ve also been helping my clients think about how to communicate this to their own leaders clearly and professionally. We are all having these experiences right now, and it’s likely you will find some very understanding ears when you start talking openly about these things.

All of these things add up to a smoldering mental health crisis in the making.

I’m a family physician. I’ve seen people who have had major, acute crises in their lives, then have struggled to rebalance. Think about your own response to the 9/11 attacks. That was an acute trauma for many people, including those closest to the events physically as well as those who were distant, but involved emotionally or mentally. We felt the effects for years, but the event itself was short in duration.

This crisis is different. It’s more like a chronic disease that has rolled out slowly and seems to be grinding on. People seem to be uncertain about when and how it will end, and most of us are figuring out that things won’t likely “go back to normal,” at least not the “normal” we remember from the start of the year.

And for workers in health care, this is both an acute and a chronic crisis that comes on the heels of an already astronomical level of professional burnout. All of this means that we have a long haul of stress, fatigue, grief and uncertainty ahead of us. I have compiled a set of resources for support of mental health during these challenging times.

The “new normal”

One of the key conversations I am having with clients is that we should look at what we considered to be “normal” a few months ago, and ask ourselves how much of that we want to go back to. My guess is that most of us are going to be changing things as we move forward, and that many of these changes will support our individual and collective well-being. That’s a good thing, though the change will not be easy.

All told, it is a tremendous privilege to be coaching right now. It is meaningful work, and provides me a way to contribute in small, individual and group ways, to the collective well-being. That actually inspires me, and motivates me. But I can’t let it motivate me to power through my days, like I used to do (the “old normal”). Instead, I must learn these new skills and embrace the reset opportunity we all are experiencing as we create a new normal together.

I hope as you all keep thinking about the world you hope to help build after the pandemic, you’ll keep coming back to this website. And as you navigate the challenges while we are still in the midst of this pandemic, please feel free to download my COVID-19 resources. You’ll find insight for understanding what’s happening today, weathering these difficulties, and building a better tomorrow. Find it here for free!

Your experience

I’d love to hear about how you are managing during this time, and to hear your thoughts about the “new normal” as we move forward together. Thanks for being part of our community!

Last updated April 16, 2020

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