To appropriate a turn of phrase from Queen Elizabeth II, 2020 was our collective annus horribilis (horrible year). The queen was referring to 1992, a year that featured the implosion of three royal marriages, a devastatingly destructive fire at Windsor Castle, and unfortunate headlines involving Sarah Ferguson’s new beau and his, ahem, admiration of the Duchess of York’s feet.
But as the meme goes, 2020 said to 1992, “Hold my beer.”
The year that the queen “shall not look back upon with undiluted pleasure” included family losses, property destruction and embarrassing press. Stressful, to be sure, but ultimately personal and mundane (although, granted, most of us don’t have to face the paparazzi). But 2020 pelted us with events of a virtually seismic nature that have in one way or another affected billions of lives worldwide. The emergence of the novel coronavirus was not the only stressor or calamity the year visited upon us, but it remains arguably the most disruptive. And perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in people’s work lives.
When the great shutdown began in the U.S. in March 2020, most of us thought we’d be confined to the house and working virtually for only a few months. But approximately one year later, and with more than 450,000 American deaths attributed to COVID-19 through the first week of February, many people are still hunched over their makeshift office equipment.
In the beginning, some of the work-from-home snafus were funny. Newscasters broadcasting with jackets — but no pants (which seems to be the preferred work-from-home style for a surprising number of people). The boss who accidentally turned herself into a potato on Microsoft Teams and didn’t know how to change back. Amusing, embarrassing and sometimes horrifying comments and conversations caught by accidentally unmuted microphones in video conferences. Other disruptions, such as cats on the keyboard and dogs chiming in during meetings, were a bit chaotic but too cute — at least at first — for their human companions to truly complain about. But other people struggled to carve out a workspace and found themselves joining meetings from underneath the stairs or barricaded behind the bathroom door because it was the only private space in a house full of busy (and noisy) family members. Even people who frequently telecommuted pre-pandemic often found adapting to an all-virtual workplace a challenge.
Balancing work, school and child care
One of the most significant challenges to working — whether virtually or on-site — during the COVID-19 era has been the lack of child care options and the need to assist children with their virtual schooling.
“Coaching folks on how to handle their work life without child care is a big focus of my practice these days,” says Katie Playfair, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and management consultant located in Portland, Oregon.
“I tell clients to be as flexible and creative as they can in figuring out how to get their job done despite these obligations and to consider, when possible, cutting back hours to something more manageable,” she says. “As the mother of children who are 8, 6 and 2 years old, I home-school them during the day and then work from 5 p.m.-10 p.m. every evening after my spouse gets home. It’s a rough schedule.”
Playfair says many parents are having to take breaks to help with schoolwork during the day and then catching up on work themselves at night. Even children who are old enough not to need constant supervision often interrupt the workday to request a snack, to seek permission to take a break or to ask a quick homework question. As a result, parents are continually task-switching, unable to block out time for uninterrupted work, Playfair explains.
“Developing a system to communicate with older kids about when parents are interruptible and when they aren’t is vital,” she stresses. The use of physical or virtual calendars, door signs or predetermined “office hours” when they will be available to their children can help parents protect meeting times and allow for concentrated work during the day, she says.
“Providing kids with a way to table their questions until appropriate times is the other side of this equation,” Playfair continues. “They may need a whiteboard on parents’ doors or some other ways of tracking things so they don’t forget about them and get frustrated. Older kids can also be taught to email or text parents. Nonetheless, parents may still find themselves having to work nights or weekends to make up for the work that isn’t getting done during the school day.”
Even with families in which one spouse was already a stay-at-home parent before the pandemic, the virtual work and school mix can throw a wrench into the routine, says Keri Riggs, a Texas-based LPC whose specialties include relationship stressors, stress management and work-related issues. In one couple with whom Riggs worked, the mother was accustomed to structuring her day around the schedule of their middle school-age children. The family had managed to incorporate virtual school into their routine when, suddenly, the father began working remotely.
The only available workspace was the kitchen table, and the husband frequently needed everyone else to clear out of the room so he could participate in meetings. But he also recognized the need to give his wife a break — and the need to get away from the table himself — so they scheduled in lunches and other times when they would trade responsibility for the children. Because his meeting schedule varied, the couple sat down every night and plotted out the next day’s schedule, blocking off times when the kitchen needed to be in “do not disturb” mode and carving out time for breaks, says Riggs, a member of the American Counseling Association.
Fitting in the demands of work and school is even more difficult for single parents because, absent an available and willing relative or neighbor, there is no one to help shoulder their burden. Uninterrupted blocks of time may be available only when the children are asleep. However, some work-related tasks, such as meetings and phone calls, generally have to take place during the day. To help minimize disruptions, Jessi Eden Brown, an LPC whose specialties include trauma and workplace bullying, suggests parents buy or create “some kind of super-involved art project that they [children] only get to work on during meetings, so it’s kind of like a treat.”
“I don’t love this,” she continues, “but some clients have [also] had success with a television show or movie that can be started or stopped.” Brown, an ACA member, recognizes that isn’t an ideal solution, but it may be the only way that some clients can prevent interruptions in meetings. As she tells parents, with all the stressors they’re coping with, an extra hour or two of television here and there for their children is not the end of the world.
Of course, as Sharon Givens, an LPC who specializes in career development and mental health, points out, “Not everyone was able to just pick up a laptop and go home. If you’re a housekeeper, you can’t work from home.”
This is particularly problematic for single parents, she says. Some of her clients have family members who can assist with child care during the day, but others have had to relinquish their jobs. They are experiencing devastating financial difficulties that were exacerbated by the end of federally supplemented unemployment benefits.
“And, so, we’re working together to create some strategies to pay the rent,” says Givens, president-elect of the National Career Development Association, a division of ACA. Some clients have pulled money from their retirement accounts or tapped family members for financial assistance. Givens has also helped clients find local assistance programs and search for jobs that they can do from home.
The pandemic and resulting recession have demanded that counselors put on their “practical strategy hat” to help clients, Givens says. She has advised clients to speak with their mortgage company or landlord and their utility companies to see what type of deferment or other relief they can offer.
Setting boundaries and navigating distractions
The virtual office poses other challenges, such as the blurring of boundaries between work and home. By getting rid of the daily commute, office workers have gained extra time, but it has also deprived them of a natural boundary that signaled the beginning and end of the workday, Riggs says. The computer is always right there — a siren beckoning workers to check their email one last time or to do just a little more work. Suddenly, it’s midnight, and they’ve spent all day at the computer.
Riggs works with clients to replace the commute with other routines, asking what symbolizes starting and ending the workday for them. Is it taking a shower or changing out of their work clothes at the end of the day? She also suggests engaging in rituals such as hanging a “closed” sign on the computer or home office door or voicing a mantra such as “I did my best today.”
“Unless an organization has set out to really change themselves into a more compassionate and empathetic place to work, they’re going to expect lots of hours, productivity and performance from everyone nearly all the time,” she says. “But even within this culture, there are opportunities for boundaries. First, I encourage people to ask their bosses, ‘Do you want the truth or what I think you want to hear?’ when an employee feels pressured past what they can take. Most people will choose the truth, and that will give the opportunity for healthy disclosure. I also like the phrase, ‘I wish I could do that for you, but I can’t because …’ to introduce a boundary.
“Finally, I think it’s helpful for employees to empathize with their bosses while still demanding support themselves. For example: ‘I understand that you’re short-staffed for this shift and that headquarters is expecting you to figure it out. That’s unfair. If our company would budget and plan sufficiently for contingency staffing, this wouldn’t be a problem for you or me, would it? I know they expect you to be fully staffed today, but they haven’t given you the resources to be successful with that, and I can’t personally make up for their poor planning.”
Brown encourages her clients to look for fellow employees who seem to be able to set boundaries. “Like ‘Bob’ — he always seems to sign off at 5. How does he do it?” she asks.
In other cases, Brown and the client may review their job description or the company’s policies and procedures manual to see if expectations for work hours have been set out.
Home itself can often be a distraction, Riggs notes. It can be difficult for people to focus exclusively on the work they are paid to do when they are surrounded by ever-present reminders of household tasks that also need to be completed, such as doing the laundry or loading the dishwasher. Cell phone pings announcing texts and social media notifications also beckon.
Riggs and her clients try out different solutions to find what works. This might involve setting a timer to complete 30-minute blocks of focused work, giving themselves a healthy reward for completing work, or setting up accountability partners. Riggs also suggests that, if possible, clients leave their cell phones in another room. If that isn’t feasible, she encourages clients to disable their notifications. She also counsels clients to prepare for the unexpected by allowing some margin for “white space” — a block of free, unscheduled time — during the day to attend to urgent requests or time-sensitive tasks.
The mental toll
Working under less than optimal conditions — or not working at all — has created significant challenges among a population that is already struggling with grief, Givens says. “All of us, if we’re being honest, are feeling a sense of loss: loss of activities, loss of career opportunities, loss of income.”
The uncertainty ushered in by the pandemic has challenged many clients’ coping skills, Givens says. She uses a variety of methods to help, including exploring what methods have supported clients’ ability to cope in the past. For some people, that involves more physical activity, whereas for others, it’s about increased (virtual) connection.
Givens also uses cognitive behavior therapy interventions such as having clients keep a thought record. They then look at this together and evaluate what is and what isn’t under the client’s control. “Many of them see the visual: ‘I spent four hours per day worrying about something that I couldn’t control,” she says.
Many of her clients are also engaging in frequent catastrophizing, obsessing about what will happen and whether they’re going to die in the pandemic. These concerns are natural, but some clients are mentally building worst-case scenarios, Givens notes. For these clients, she uses a different kind of thought record known as an evidence record. The concept is the same — clients write down their thoughts and then go over them with Givens — but what they’re looking for is any evidence to support the likelihood of their worst-case scenarios becoming reality.
All of the practitioners Counseling Today spoke to for this article urge clients to be patient with themselves as they navigate the myriad challenges of working during the COVID-19 era. Riggs recommends Kristin Neff’s five-minute self-compassion break (a guided version is available at self-compassion.org/guided-self-compassion-meditations-mp3-2/).
The practice begins by, as Neff puts it, “calling up a little suffering,” or reflecting on something that is currently causing stress or worry. Neff then provides a series of phrases “designed to help us remember the three components of self-compassion when we need it most.”
The first phrase is “This is a moment of suffering.” Or, as Riggs tells her clients, “I’m having a hard time today. I’m struggling.”
The second phrase is “Suffering is a part of life.” Riggs describes this as recognizing one’s connection to all of humanity: Not only am I struggling, other people struggle too. I am not alone.
The third phrase is “May I be kind to myself in this moment.” To support being kind to oneself, Neff suggests that listeners place their hand over their heart or another place on their body that feels soothing, then focus on the warmth of their hand and let that sensation stream through their fingers. She then recommends that listeners direct kind and supportive language toward themselves, such as words they might use with a friend going through a similar situation — e.g., “I’m here for you. It’s going to be OK.”
At the end of the practice or “break,” Neff asks listeners to notice how their bodies feel and to allow themselves to just “be” in the moment with those sensations.
Riggs also suggests clients ask themselves what would make them feel better at that moment. “That’s really the hardest piece if you don’t know what you need,” she says. “Do I need to move my body? Do I need to journal? Call my best friend? Put on music? Give myself a hug?”
Finally, Riggs tells clients to remind themselves that the stress or anxiety they are currently experiencing will not last forever — that they won’t feel like this forever. Eventually, it will change.
Amid the suffering caused by the pandemic, Brown sees opportunities for personal growth. “Never before have we had … [such a] profound opportunity to slow down and focus on life’s priorities with such intention,” she says. “COVID-19 has affected nearly every person on the planet. Countless people live in fear, and many have lost family, friends, livelihoods and so much more.
“The tragedy is undeniable. That said, I have always believed that low moments like these potentially set the stage for meaningful change as we reflect on what is important and how our decisions either support or impede our progress.”
The pandemic and a frayed political climate have also been at the center of various instances of workplace bullying. Read more in our online exclusive article, “No rest for the bullied.”
Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.