Like most, the experience of living through the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown has been quite a revelation to me on many fronts. It has been intriguing to watch how the world has responded on a political, business and personal level. In many ways, our varied responses to this crisis are as fascinating as the pandemic.

As James Lane Allen once wrote, “Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.” I have found this to be entirely true as I have observed the world in crisis. We have seen remarkable leadership, kindness, creativity, compassion and inspiration as COVID-19 unfolded across the globe. In contrast, we have also seen some of the worst elements of human nature too – poor leadership, finger pointing, lying, hoarding and thinly veiled racism.  All of this has played out around us, whilst so many lives have been lost. 

As the number of deaths continue to rise on a global scale, the escalating lack of empathy for those that are living with the shock of losing a loved one has been incredibly depressing. In my humble view, empathy or a lack thereof, has become the great divider of leadership during this time. As the crisis has deepened, COVID-19 has become a macabre numbers game. We no longer remember that every single person that has been lost has devastated a family and a community. These are human lives, not just statistics. In many ways, digesting the scale of the tragedy is almost too much for most of us to cope with.

From an economic perspective, the world is also in crisis. The unemployment statistics continue to rise and so many have been wounded without warning, losing their income and feeling as if they have lost their dignity in the process.  The economists continue to provide dire warnings regarding unemployment rates and the likelihood and timing of recovery. It is all very grim and suddenly very real for so many of us. Whether you are directly impacted or watching nervously as others are, the speed at which things have changed is deeply unsettling.

I have never been more grateful to work in an organisation that truly does value its people.  Having worked for other organisations that wield redundancies and staff cuts on a regular basis, a truly people oriented business does provides a greater sense of security – especially during a global crisis. 

Our CEO has openly stated that our number one priority is to keep our people employed and together. We have communicated more than ever, found ways to fast track core projects and consistently focused on the profound impact of mental health. Those at the most senior ranks have taken a pay cut to provide a buffer for the entire organisation, whilst we carefully work to shore up our business, focus on our clients and limit our expenses. In many ways, the crisis has bonded us closer together. 

Personal lessons

However, the biggest lessons for me during COVID-19 have been very personal. Although I have found myself more readily practising gratitude for all of the positive parts of my life, I have probably spent more time reflecting on what this all means than ever before. I don’t think I am alone.

As an off the scale extravert, I get my energy and enthusiasm for life from contact with others. My source of energy and inspiration has been dramatically cut off and the impact has been brutal on my sense of self. One colleague aptly described my new state of mind – my wings have been clipped and my energy source has been depleted. Never were truer words spoken!

And although you would think that the endless zoom calls would provide some respite from the sudden loneliness, they seemed to actually drain me even further. Rather than feeling energised, I now often finish the work day completely exhausted. As eloquently explained by Julia Sklar in “Zoom fatigue is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens”, virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain[1].   

My cravings for face to face adult interaction have resulted in a constant exercise regime with my trainer, outside at the local park. This has been a truly positive outcome and I think the exercise has kept my sanity intact and helped me to justify sitting in one spot for most of the day. 

Eventually, I also discovered the pure joy of a daily trip to the local coffee shop each morning for a takeaway caffeine hit.  Every day, I secretly hope that I will find someone to engage with in some witty banter.  So far, I am pleased to report that my success rate has been relatively high on that front. This small indulgence has become the highlight of my day.

Ultimately, I have found that the news and social media heavily contributed to my feelings of isolation and the fear mongering began to eat away at my optimism. Eventually, I just stopped looking and the anxiety seemed to ease.  I have been quite shocked at some of the content that my friends have shared. The need to apportion blame for the pandemic has often reached fever pitch, and the shared humanity of our global suffering has been lost. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own views and spirited debate is one of life’s joys. However, if reading those views in a constant stream of negativity on social media starts to impact you, it is time to switch off. I did and it helped a great deal.

Despite switching off these information channels, I still wanted to keep current on the big issues. I carefully curated my information sources to reputable outlets, seeking daily news from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the impressive COVID-19 briefing materials from McKinsey and Company[2].

Interestingly, those who know me well, could see that I had somewhat retreated from the world. They reached out to me in a variety of ways to make sure that I was coping okay. Colleagues, friends and family zoomed in (pardon the pun!) to ensure that the Kylie that they knew and loved was still there and not under a cloak of darkness. I am okay, just in hibernation, waiting for the opportunity to regain that energy source. However, I am eternally grateful that I have people that cared enough to check on me.

Many of those kind folk that reached out made sure that I had access to tools and materials to keep my mental health in check[3]. I am also very fortunate to sit on the board of The Oranges Toolkit, which provides practical tools for positive psychology. Their webinars on resilience and agility during COVID-19 were exceptional and I have often referred to their training materials around maintaining optimism. Remembering that “this too shall pass” is hugely helpful!

My top 10

So, what are my top lessons from lockdown? As we begin to slowly emerge in Australia, I have started to focus on what I take with me from this experience. Here are my top 10 lessons:

1.      Leadership. Think about your leadership style and the leaders that you choose to follow in a crisis – whether this is political, business or thought leadership. Empathy is the great divider and makes an enormous difference, particularly in a crisis.

2.      Look to work for or with organisations that truly focus on their people. This is always important, but at a time when anxiety about job security is peaking, it helps to know that your employer truly does care. 

3.      Mental health is critical. This needs as much care and thought as physical health for everyone. Sometimes what you can’t see is having more impact than you realise on an individual basis.

4.      Practise gratitude and focus on the positives wherever possible. This small daily act truly does keep you in a more positive frame of mind.

5.      Exercise really does help. It doesn’t have to be extreme, but moving every day has so many benefits both physically and psychologically. This daily habit has definitely helped me enormously during this time.

6.      Find the joy in small things each day. Right now, this could be as simple as a conversation with a neighbour, a takeaway coffee, or a walk with your dog. 

7.      Limit social media and seek out quality information from reputable, independent sources. Not everything that you read on the internet is true! Make sure that you are feeding your brain quality data.

8.      Stay connected with those that care. This doesn’t have to be a video call – sometimes a text is all that is needed. However, it is important to just keep connected to those that you care about in some way, shape or form.  

9.      Check in on others, particularly those that may be struggling. Your efforts will mean a lot more than you can imagine. Being kind and showing empathy has never been more important.

10.  Use tools to help you deal with everything that is swirling around you.  There are so many of these readily available, including excellent reading materials, webinars, podcasts and apps. If you find something particularly useful, don’t be afraid to share with others.

Summary

I know that we are not out of the woods just yet in terms of this pandemic, and there is still a long way to go before we can resume some of our normal activities. And even then, it is highly possible that life will never return to the way it was before. We will collectively emerge changed from this experience. Our responsibility to ourselves and each other is to emerge changed for the better.

[1] Julia Sklar, “Zoom fatigue is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens.” National Geographic, 24 April 2020 https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/coronavirus-zoom-fatigue-is-taxing-the-brain-here-is-why-that-happens/

[2] McKinsey are publishing regular papers on COVID-19, which are well researched, relatively short and factual. 

[3] The following are excellent resources and tools to help you manage your mental health:

https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-self-isolation-a-psychologist-explains-how-to-avoid-cabin-fever-133317

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-13/coronavirus-makes-loneliness-worse-heres-what-to-do/12139524

https://coronavirus.beyondblue.org.au/managing-my-daily-life/coping-with-isolation-and-being-at-home/managing-your-mental-health-while-in-self-isolation-or-quarantine.html

https://coronavirus.beyondblue.org.au/managing-my-daily-life/coping-with-isolation-and-being-at-home/the-importance-of-establishing-a-routine.html

https://www.forbes.com/sites/rsmdiscovery/2020/05/08/four-simple-ways-to-combat-the-loneliness-caused-by-covid-19/#24e3d58c4524

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-05-09/coronavirus-what-you-dream-of-post-lockdown/12222992

Photo credit: Pixabay, “Thinker at a Loss”​