Life and work in the era of COVID-19 have taken big blows. The impact on performance at work and our rest at home has been profound, and it’s an ongoing story. The pandemic that hasn’t really ended yet has prompted mental health professionals to rethink some of the longstanding ideas about stress, motivation and fatigue – and the best ways to handle them.

In recent years, and especially in the wake of disastrous domestic events, we’ve taken to using the term PTSD to describe a wide range of calamitous emotional experiences. But the term’s use may not be accurate. When we use the term, we’re using a phrase first coined in 1915, to describe the condition of troops recovering from combat in World War I (“shell shock” was another name for it).

George A. Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, argues that we vastly overestimate how common PTSD is, and we likewise often fail to recognize how resilient people really are. In his latest book, The End of Trauma: How the New Science of Resilience Is Changing How We Think About PTSD, he offers many relatively new ideas about stress and the fact that how to handle it can actually make things worse. 


No one-size-fits-all thinking

Bonanno writes: “A group of mindfulness experts recently cautioned, in a paper published in a leading psychology journal, that misinformation about the effectiveness of mindfulness can mislead people, and can even lead to harm.” Studies and case reports “have linked meditation to serious side effects, including increased anxiety, panic, disorientation, hallucinations, and depersonalization—the feeling of being disconnected from oneself.”

Bonanno says ending trauma calls for flexibility — realizing that there is no “one-size-fits-all” ways to handle trauma. “All of this research points to the same basic conclusion: coping and emotion regulation strategies are inherently neither good nor bad,” Bonanno says. “Every strategy has costs and benefits, and a given strategy is effective only insofar as it helps us meet the demands of a specific situation.”


COVID information fatigue

Among the more inescapable ways fatigue has crashed into our lives is a special brand of tiredness that we can’t seem to escape: COVID news fatigue. It’s distinct from the physical fatigue that accompanies actual diagnosis of COVID-19, but it’s no less real than the disease itself. It’s a result of the constant drumbeat of information – some hopeful, much of it depressing – that’s accompanied the worst global public-health crisis in literally 100 years. 

With COVID fatigue, “You’re tired in your soul — emotionally, psychologically, socially, spiritually, you are just tired and not motivated,” said Dr. Carl Lambert, assistant professor of family medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, on the American Medical Association website.

The World Health Organization offers its own counsel: “Minimize watching, reading or listening to news that causes you to feel anxious or distressed; seek information only from trusted sources … Get the facts; not rumors and misinformation. Facts can help to minimize fears.”

Lambert counsels, “[M]aintain hope that things will get better. That feeds into what’s happening nowadays with the vaccine and all these other avenues that are providing hope. If there’s anything that you can do to maintain hope, that’s really the way to go.”

Workplace: Hothouse for stress

The workplace is a main incubator for stress and fatigue, as where we do our work has changed in recent years, and certainly since COVID-19 made working from home more than a pleasant option. The disconnection from colleagues and the collegial environment of the original workplace can be corrosive, making one constantly feel outside the action. And the homebound stressors we got a break from when we left home to go to work are there with WFH employees all day long.

University of Washington recreation fitness manager Jeff Palmer suggests several exercise-focused tips for staying motivated and minimizing fatigue that include starting your day with a plan or schedule, squeezing in shorter bouts of activity, practicing healthy and mindful eating, and noticing how good exercise makes you feel.


Motivation traps

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Bror Saxberg, vice president of Learning Science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Richard Clark, a professor emeritus of psychology and technology at the University of Southern California, identified four motivation traps we’re prone to in the workplace:


Trap 1: Values Mismatch
“When a task doesn’t connect with or contribute to something workers value, they won’t be motivated to do it,” Clark and Saxberg say.

How to help: Learn what the employee cares about and connect it to the task. Managers often make the mistake of thinking about what motivates them, assuming the same is true of their employees.


Trap 2: Lack of Self-Efficacy
“When workers believe they lack the capacity to carry out a task, they won’t be motivated to do it,” the educators say.

How to help: Build the employee’s sense of confidence, competence and self-efficacy by pointing out times in the past when they’ve successfully tackled similar challenges, or share examples of others who’ve overcome the same challenges.


Trap 3: Disruptive Emotions
“When workers are consumed with negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, or depression, they won’t be motivated to carry out a task,” they say.

How to help: In private, tell the employee you want to understand why they are upset, and engage in active listening. Be nonjudgmental by asking what the employee believes is causing them to be upset. Then, summarize what they said back to them and ask if they understood. If they say “no,” apologize and tell them you are listening carefully and ask if they would “please try again.”  


Trap 4: Attribution Errors
“When employees can’t accurately identify the reason for their struggles with a task, or when they attribute their struggles to a reason beyond their control, they won’t be motivated to do it.”

How to help: Help the employee think clearly about the causes of their struggles with a task. Attribution errors often happen when employees hunt for excuses not to perform a given task. “Helping the employee identify exactly why the task seems insurmountable can help them move past such avoidance.”

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