By mid-April, Australia had already seen more than 60 deaths and 6,500 confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19). Just more than half of those infected had recovered. As the numbers worldwide continued to grow and the majority of people practiced social distancing and self-isolation, anxiety levels rose incrementally.
Mental health providers saw an immediate rise in activity. The first week of February saw an increase of 19% in screenings for clinical anxiety. An increase of an additional 12% occurred in the first weeks of March. Much of these increases occurred before the official declaration of coronavirus as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020.
Anxiety levels are high around the world with COVID-19. Fears over the health and economic impact caused by the coronavirus have taken a toll on productivity. As more employees work from home, the office environment has changed as well.
So, how do you remain productive at work when there is so much going on around you and you are dealing with high levels of stress daily? Here are five tips for staying productive even when anxiety levels are high.
1. Control Your Environment
If you’re working from home, you should set up a space that is specifically designated for work. Talk to your family about boundaries. When you’re in your workspace, ask family members to treat it the same way they would if you were at the office. Limit interruptions until regular break times.
Regular hours for both work and non-work time will also help. When you’re working from home, it’s too easy for work to become all-consuming. When you leave your work area, be done for the day. Unless it’s an immediate crisis, it will wait.
If you’re at work, control the environment by committing to a routine – even if it’s different from the way you’ve always operated. When your routine has been disrupted, it’s easy to feel out of sorts and overwhelmed. The faster you can develop your new routine – and stick to it – the more productive you will be.
This may mean adjusting your standards. Right now, perfectionism should not be your goal. It’s an avoidable source of stress. We don’t know what the future will hold. It’s likely to change again. Focus your energy on the most important tasks and learn to set reasonable standards.
Controlling your environment also means taking proactive steps to limit negative thoughts. You can’t control the uncontrollable, but you can control your reactions.
2. Organise Your Work
When you are dealing with anxiety, it can feel like everything is out of control. This chaos only adds to the anxious feelings. The best way to get past the chaos is to organise. Executive coaching teaches management skills to organise your work. These are especially important during times of stress.
- Prioritise your work
When you’re anxious, it helps to create a daily to-do list. Rank them in order of importance and do the high priority items first. If you know there’s going to be a difficult task or you have to do something unpleasant, try to get it out of the way as soon as possible. This can reduce the stress you’ll feel all day knowing it’s coming up.
- Break Tasks into Sub-Tasks
It can be overwhelming to stare at a list of tasks and wonder how you’re ever going to get things done. Break projects into smaller steps. As you achieve these incremental steps, it can give you a sense of achievement that you are working towards your bigger goal. This can reduce stress.
- Delegate What You Can
When people first get put into leadership roles, they often micro-manage others and try to take responsibility for everything. As you develop your leadership skills, you know it’s more important to set the tone and guide the culture than it is to do the work yourself. Delegate the tasks you can and use this as an opportunity for your staff to grow. It will also allow you to evaluate how your team members work during this difficult time.
- Avoid Over-Committing
As a leader, you’re used to getting things done on time and within budget. We’re living in a different world right now and it will likely take more time (and maybe more money) than we’re used to. Avoid the “Superman Complex” where you want to take on everything and solve the world’s problems.
- It’s OK to Say No
Sometimes, you just have to say no. It’s OK.
3. Take Regular Breaks
Our brains aren’t built for working long stretches without recharging. Researchers say we are more productive when we work in 90-minute increments followed by short breaks. Even a 10-minute break can reduce anxiety and help refocus your attention.
One symptom of anxiety is something researchers call “decision fatigue.” As your energy drains, it becomes more difficult to make important decisions. Failure to make these decisions only adds to anxiety levels – especially if you are in a leadership position where you know you need to make the decision.
This has proven to be the case over a variety of studies. In one study, researchers set up an experiment with judges that were in charge of parole hearings. In one group, judges took regular breaks twice during the workday. In the other group, the judges were asked to work straight through without breaks. Consistently, the judges that did not take breaks granted fewer paroles. Eventually, they started rejecting every case. When interviewed afterward, the judges admitted they had worn down mentally and didn’t trust themselves to make good decisions. It became safer to reject cases than to evaluate them fairly. Did it make these judges even more anxious? Yes. They worried they had made the wrong decisions.
4. Take Care of Yourself
When you’re anxious, you are less likely to take care of yourself. A great manager may be focusing their leadership skills to take care of their business and their employees but fail to take care of themselves.
You’re not going to do anybody any good if your anxiety leads you to be less productive. Your team is looking to you right now to lead them, protect their jobs, and position your company for the future.
Take time to take care of yourself.
Exercise releases endorphins. This, in turn, triggers a positive feeling in the body, reduces your pain perception, and reduce anxiety. Regular exercise can also raise serotonin levels. This boosts your sense of well-being and helps regulate your sleep cycles. When you’re anxious, your sleep patterns may be disrupted. Getting a good night’s sleep will help lessen anxiety levels.
If you’re working in isolation, you may be moving around less than normal. With diminished physical activity happening naturally, you need to get up and move around. Even a slight increase in physical activity can make a difference.
Avoid self-medication and destructive behaviours. Alcohol, smoking, caffeine, and eating poorly all accentuate anxiety.
5. Stay Connected with Others
Fear and isolation can lead to anxiety and depression. During times of uncertainty, these feelings can be exacerbated.
Even those that feel chained to their desks at work typically have interactions throughout the day in the workplace. Working at home may eliminate those. When you’re forced to keep six feet away from others or wear a mask in public, you’re not likely to have as many interactions with others.
Reach out to colleagues, friends, and family members regularly. Stay connected to your team and your support network consistently.
Use video conferencing technology, such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Skype, or FaceTime. These free and low-cost collaboration tools let you see team members. Video provides a more complete connection with others. When you can see each other’s facial expressions and body language, the conversations are more intimate.
Share your feelings and be transparent with your team. You don’t know all the answers and they don’t expect you to. They do want to know you are working with them to come up with solutions.
Plan for a Post-Coronavirus World
The health crisis will eventually pass. Things will slowly return to more normal.
The steps you take now to move your company forward will determine your success when things do settle down. You must take steps to relieve your anxiety, stay focused on business growth, and stay productive. You owe it to your business, your team members, and yourself.