If We’re All in This Together, Why Do I Feel So Alone?

With communities and businesses seesawing between re-opening and tightening restrictions around COVID-19, feelings of isolation, frustration and confusion are growing. We remain physically more distant from one another, interact with faces covered and sometimes even interpret the presence of others as a potential health threat. But increasing your emotional availability and upping compassion for yourself and others can generate more positive feelings and enable the team to better weather the storm together.

Everyone’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic differs, of course, depending on where you sit. If you are fortunate to be healthy and able to work remotely, or with a small number of colleagues in a space that accommodates social distancing, you may feel very grateful. At least on most days.

Yet, radically altered routines and dramatically reduced in-person contact with colleagues, friends and extended family can still lead to profound feelings of isolation and loneliness. Even casual interactions with strangers that provide a sense of connection to society as a whole are largely missing right now. Given that we need both the cooperation and reassurance of one another’s presence more than ever, that can be a painful irony.

When stress spills over
Unfortunately, all that stress you’re feeling inside can also show up among coworkers. A review of 300 studies focused on workplace relationships conducted by several researchers from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro found that external tensions can create and intensify conflict among coworkers. Basically, the greater our duress, the less able we are to extend grace and compassion to others.
 
Ironically, compassion (for yourself and others) is likely exactly what’s needed. “Compassion is an irreplaceable dimension of excellence for any organization that wants to make the most of its human capabilities,” say the authors of Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power that Elevates People and Organizations. Consider these ways to spread the love, or at least the compassion, to yourself and your coworkers.

Continue to connect
Challenging circumstances shake things up and can actually prompt creative new approaches to existing problems. They can even provide the spark you needed to build deeper connections with colleagues. Invest the time and attention to nurture relationships with coworkers you already know and reach out to those you might enjoy knowing better. Your efforts are likely to help decrease feelings of isolation now and lay the groundwork for a more robust and satisfying personal and professional network in the future.    
 
Accept different coping strategies
This is new territory for everyone. Some will seem to take every new development in stride and others suffer from heightened anxiety and fearfulness. Respect each person’s coping strategies and remind yourself that everyone’s circumstances are unique. Coworkers with elderly parents, a spouse with a serious health condition or school-age kids at home face different stressors than a young single person living alone, and perhaps far from primary support systems. Honor the coping strategies that work best for others, and those that work best for you.
 
Cut everyone some slack
The combination of health concerns, economic uncertainty, constantly changing information and social isolation has created a perfect storm of overwhelm. Mental health professionals point out that a crisis heightens our awareness of our own suffering and can diminish our appreciation of the suffering of others. If you find yourself reacting harshly or abruptly to coworkers, hit the reset button quickly and try to re-engage in a positive and upbeat manner when heads have cooled.
 
Give voice to your feelings
Help those you supervise and colleagues by over-communicating during a crisis. That applies to sharing updates and changing expectations but also to verbalizing feelings and encouraging others to do likewise. It’s perfectly reasonable to let the team know you are concerned about meeting business goals. Or to apologize for being short-tempered due to competing demands at home. When you identify and share your feelings, you are better able to deal with them effectively and give others permission to do the same. Sharing difficult feelings can make them more manageable.
 
Know that everyone is doing their best
There can be great relief in accepting that you cannot be perfect, and in releasing others from that expectation. There is no playbook for simultaneously navigating a global pandemic and expansive social unrest. When you accept that reality, each day becomes another opportunity to show compassion for yourself and your colleagues for making the effort anew.

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