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‘Small, kind gestures’ helpful in addressing pandemic fatigue

Employers urged to listen to employees, provide support during this unprecedented time
(Stock photo)

Maybe it’s the rising feeling of anger that comes over you when another driver cuts you off in traffic. Or it could be that lingering pang of irritation when a shopper walks the wrong direction down a grocery aisle.

If you’ve lately found yourself reacting strongly to ordinary, everyday occurrences, you could be experiencing pandemic fatigue.

And you’re not alone.

“I think everybody’s getting weary,” said Irene Caufield-Cook, the owner of Caufield Counselling and Consulting in Sudbury, during a Sept. 30 webinar hosted by Workplace Safety North (WSN).

“People are feeling ‘done’ and people are demonstrating that in many different ways. Sadly, as this goes on longer, people are coping and functioning less well with it.”

Understanding pandemic fatigue and how to manage it in the workplace was the topic of discussion during the fifth webinar in the COVID-19 Conversations series hosted by WSN. The Sudbury-based organization offers health and safety training to industry and businesses across Northern Ontario.

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Caufield-Cook, a counsellor whose practice serves individuals, couples and families, said struggles with mental health have been elevated during the COVID-19 pandemic as people grapple with how to manage the changes in their lives during this unprecedented time.

People are hardwired with a fight or flight response, Caufield-Cook said, but that’s designed to help us get through immediate, physical danger.

While there is an element of risk to the COVID-19 pandemic, she noted, it’s a sustained one, and that’s left people feeling more reactive to one another as they look for outlets to express their anger and frustration.

“We are pulling apart instead of coming together, and part of it is because this has been months and months and months, and it’s not measurable,” she said. “We don’t have something we can run towards; we don’t know when this is going to end.”

Anxiety can manifest itself differently in everyone, but generally, Caufield-Cook defined it as “your body telling you that something is too much.”

For some people, it’s a physical reaction – a headache or dizziness – while for others it’s more feeling-based. Many describe it as an “absolute inability to move forward,” Caufield-Cook said, or the sense that they’ve lost control of their own body.

Ignoring the symptoms can only make it worse.

So, how can employers best help those employees who are suffering from pandemic fatigue?

Very simply, Caufield-Cook said, it comes down to kindness – for ourselves and each other.

It’s important to acknowledge that just as everyone experiences it differently, chances are everyone is facing it at some level.

Even those who seem like they’re managing may not actually be OK, she noted, and it’s crucial not to be dismissive of anyone’s experience.

“I think we have to help people, recognizing it’s based on their reality,” she said. “So, whatever’s going on, if it feels overwhelming, then it is, and how can I help you?”

She suggested sitting down with employees and having a conversation. Listening and acknowledging the difficulties of the current situation can go a long way in easing that anxiety, she said.

An employer or colleague can even practise “buddy breathing:” sitting with a colleague and breathing in and out at a regulated pace.

This can be especially helpful at a time when we’re required to wear masks, which tend to trigger a stressful reaction, and heavier breathing, for the majority of people, Caufield-Cook said.

As a guideline, she suggested imagining smelling flowers as you breathe in, and blowing out candles on a birthday cake as you breathe out.

They’re scenarios that most people can identify with, and associate with positive memories, she noted.

There may also be employees who view COVID-19 protocols introduced to the workplace as a punishment, or an unnecessary overreaction to the relatively low number of COVID-19 cases in Northern Ontario.

Caufield-Cook encouraged employers to issue a gentle reminder that protocols are put in place to keep the whole team safe, which also safeguards the health of their loved ones at home.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that (the situation) is ever changing,” she said. “We don’t know what the numbers are going to look like.”

Employers should welcome discussion with employees and allow them to vent their anger and frustration, if that’s what they need.

In general, Caufield-Cook said, “small, kind gestures” can make a huge difference in helping people feel heard and validated during this time.

“It is the only way we’re going to get through this,” she said. “If we can’t create kindness within ourselves, then we can’t have the capacity to be kind to each other.”