The new year is a glorified time to plan ahead and tackle the next year. But what happens when we have no idea what the next year will bring — or we think we do, but we know that’s subject to change at any instant? It can feel like we have to survive at work.
The COVID-19 Omicron surge has put companies and their employees in limbo. Employers are changing their back-to-office plans: some are putting them on hold or even scrapping making plans altogether. The future of work is blurry, both physically and logistically. It’s hard to forecast exactly what work will look like in the next five years — or even the next one. And even if we do predict what will happen, it’s likely to change in an instant.
Being in limbo isn’t easy. According to the American Institute of Stress, living in limbo is more stressful than knowing what’s coming next. “Uncertainty about the future and anxiety don’t mix well,” wrote Marc McQueen Centers for the institute.
Yet as we worry about more unprecedented times, our work and personal lives continue to go on and we’re expected to keep up. Let’s acknowledge that this isn’t an easy feat — in fact, continuing “as normal” when nothing is normal is often difficult and feels nearly impossible.
Here’s how to survive at work when everything’s in limbo, to ensure you’re giving yourself grace no matter what unexpected thing comes your way.
1. Focus on what have vs. what you don’t have.
Maybe here’s what you miss: watercooler chats, in-person brainstorms and going out to lunch with your favorite coworker. Instead of ruminating on what you don’t have, think about what you do have and what you’re grateful for. Maybe now you have the freedom to walk your dog mid-workday, the time to make a great cup of coffee or a later wake-up. It can be easy to focus on everything we’re missing. But practicing gratitude for what we do have can improve our mental health, relationships, optimism and even boost our immune system.
2. Make a routine that works for you, and give yourself the flexibility to stray from it.
Routines are great for giving us control in times when we don’t feel in control. Yet routines should be unique to every person; there’s no one set of daily habits that will work the best for everyone’s schedule, mental health and emotional regulation.
Create your personal routine by thinking about things that give you both short-term and long-term happiness and calm. For example, I know getting some movement in my day makes me feel energized, brings peace when I’m moving and gives me a burst of creativity when I’m done. That means I prioritize movement when planning my day and schedule it in around my other commitments. It’s a non-negotiable part of my routine.
At the same time, it’s important to be flexible with our routines. Sometimes I have back-to-back meetings and can’t make time for a walk or run. Other times, the weather’s bad and it’s too dangerous to go outside. It can be frustrating when forces outside of our control mess with our routines, so it’s crucial to give ourselves grace when things don’t go as planned. Consider other ways to adjust your plans to still have the semblance of a routine. For me, maybe that’s doing a lap around my apartment or some quick stretches when I have a few minutes. It’s not the same, but I know that one day won’t ruin the habits I hold dear.
3. Micro-plan ahead.
Like routines, plans also give us a sense of control amidst the chaos. When we’re in limbo, however, it can be frustrating to make plans when we know they’re subject to change because of external circumstances.
Instead, “micro-plan” to regain some control without the frustration. “Micro-planning” either can mean planning for just a few days ahead — like making weekend plans on a Thursday — or making a small, controlled plan you know will bring you joy. Maybe that means you’re planning on ordering your favorite Mexican food for dinner tomorrow. Maybe you plan to Facetime a relative or friend tonight. Maybe you plan to start a new television show or read a new book. It doesn’t have to be big (in fact, that’s the whole point!).
4. Lean on others when you need it.
Just because we’re in limbo doesn’t mean we need to go through it alone. Leaning on others, whether that’s for help with a task or just someone to talk to, doesn’t mean we’re less equipped to handle the stress. It means we’re using the tools we have to get through tough times.
Maybe that means reaching out to a coworker or being honest with your boss about your workload. Maybe it’s reaching out to a friend or relative to talk about what’s going on in your professional life.
Everyone is experiencing the limbo of COVID-19 in different ways. It’s crucial that we continue to support one another, and lean on each other when we need it.
5. Check back in with yourself.
You’ve practiced gratitude, set a routine, micro-planned and leaned on a friend — but you’re still feeling stressed, anxious and constantly upset.
Just because we’re doing things to help us survive doesn’t always mean we feel like we’re surviving. That’s why it’s most important to check in with yourself, regularly, to assess what’s really bothering you and how you can adapt to support yourself.
Maybe something in your routine isn’t serving you anymore. Maybe an old relationship isn’t giving you the same emotional support it once did. Checking in will make you aware of what’s working and what’s not, and allow you to adjust as needed — because survival tactics can change as often the state of the world does.