As one of those currently locked down, working from home, I am immersed in the flood of tips, tools and checklists; the how to of online meetings, the managing kids and pets memes and photos. (As the owner of a hyperactive sausage dog, I too have shared…) There is however, a notable bias in this advice; toward those of us in our bubble. While there is an outpouring of genuine, heartfelt appreciation for essential workers - those not protected in a bubble - there is less, in terms of practical, actionable support.
This has me reflecting on my 10+ years as a NZ Army Psychologist; in particular, supporting operational deployments. In this work, we applied core principles of psychology and human behaviour and drew upon the pragmatic lessons learned of those with prior operational experience. Working in partnership, we supported people to proactively consider and plan for their ‘new normal’ - both those deploying and their whanau at home. My focus in this blog, is on those ‘deploying’. Essential Workers - this is for you.
One of the simplest and most effective strategies for deployments, centres on the value of routines and rituals. Routines reduce cognitive load and create practical ‘short-cuts’. Rituals help us to achieve desired (and required) emotional and mental states.
1. Establish routines early
Routines (repeated pattern of behaviour) free up mental energy, that can instead be focused on the complex and critical elements of your work. Think about how you can structure the start and end of your day/shift. You may also want to use routines around your ‘break’ times, to ensure you can get the intended and full benefit of this part of your day.
Practical action: Establish routines to simplify things in the ‘regular’ parts of your work day. How are you managing, for example, your PPE? Could you create a ‘station’ at home where you put everything needed the night before; that you pass as you ‘walk out the door’ to work. Are you having to make your lunch / take food and drinks with you to work now? Could you devote one shelf in the fridge to this food - so you’re not searching the kitchen for ‘supplies’? You may be washing clothes and equipment more regularly; can this be simplified - for example, locating your washing basket where you get changed?
Enlist the support of those around you, to help establish and maintain these routines.
Notably - we also need to be prepared to break past routines – that aren’t practical or don’t fit the parameters of our ‘new normal’.
2. Transition your Routines into Rituals
Rituals can look the same as routines, but they also help us oscillate into and out of different mental and emotional states. They support us to be ‘on our game’ in complex, challenging environments and, equally importantly, they help us to ‘let go’ and relax, when this is what is needed.
Many rituals start out as routines. Laying out work clothes the night before saves time and decision-making effort early in the morning. Yet it can also become a time to contemplate and reflect, and ‘park’ our work worries, before we go to bed. We can relax and sleep more easily, knowing that we are ready for tomorrow - practically, mentally and emotionally.
Practical action: Establish rituals that ‘bookend’ your work periods and take advantage of routines that already exist in your work:
- Walking to and from work, even if it’s taking a more circuitous route from your car to your workplace, can support your mental and emotional transition. Use that time to breathe deeply, calmly contemplate scenarios that may soon occur and think about how you will ‘show up’ in these. Likewise, a shower - at the end of a shift / first thing when you get home - serves not just a practical purpose, but can also be used to pause, defuse and reflect.
- In the Covid-19 context, hand-washing is a critical routine for essential workers, that occurs throughout the day. Be curious about how you can also use this as a ‘micro-ritual’ to support your thinking and emotional state. Deliberately slow your breathing as you wash your hands. Close your eyes and focus on the feel of the water on your hands; use a visual image that supports your desired / required mental and emotional state.
- Getting a drink of water at the start of every break, moves you away from your immediate task; serves your physical hydration needs, and gives you the chance to pause and be mindful. Drink the water slowly vs. rushing. Gain what is intended - a break - physically, emotionally and mentally.
3. Exercise Routines and Rituals
For many of us, our daily/weekly form of exercise is both a routine and ritual. It serves us practically, mentally and emotionally. Physical exercise is a key foundation of mental health and resilience.
In our ‘new normal’, the ‘why’ of exercising is unchanged. However, it’s likely we’ll need to change our ‘what’ and ‘how’. Sustaining fitness and exercise as a means of decompressing on operations, was a critical consideration in all deployment related work.
A recent news article serves as a practical example: “Health Minister drives to local park to ride his mountain bike, amid coronavirus lockdown”. This is not about calling him out. It shows that even those who are most informed, are challenged in adapting to a ‘new normal’.
Changing behaviour is not about what we know - if it were that simple we’d all be an ideal weight, regular exercisers, and sugar and alcohol-free! Behaviour change – habit breaking and habit forming - needs deliberate consideration and planning. It takes intentional sustained effort and a non-judgmental response to ‘falling off the wagon’. It is not easy, but it is achievable - enlist the support of others.
Practical action: Consider, plan and enact your ‘Covid-19’ exercise routine. How can you adapt your usual routine? It may be that you need to replace your usual activity with something new. See this as an opportunity to ‘add a new tool’ to your exercise regime.
If you didn’t have an exercise routine ‘pre-Covid-19’, find something. A simple guided stretching routine is a great start. Use this at the end of your shift/work day, or before going to bed. You may also want to use it as part of your pre-work ritual.
Thank you - from the Winsborough team - to all of our clients and partners out there sustaining Aotearoa, NZ: Foodstuffs, Air NZ, NZDF, DHBs, NZ Police, FENZ, NEMA, MPI, AWDT, Fonterra, Min Ed, SSC, and more. I hope this blog serves you, in some small way.
You can find more Leadership Resources that we've put together to help you through the Covid-19 pandemic here