Career & Jobs

“How to Find Well-Being in Isolation”


“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
-Albert Camus, The Plague, 1948

Reading daily accounts detailing mounting numbers of fatalities is heartbreaking and strange. For years we’ve heard warnings that a pandemic could happen, but it seemed hard to imagine in the modern world.

Now it’s here. We have our nests, our little pockets of safety. But there’s little in this new reality that we can control.

In a suffering world, in an ailing country, we’re the lucky ones if we have a job that we can enact from a safe space. Still, it’s hard to feel fortunate when people are suffering all around us. This is an emotionally complex time. How do we find well-being when our society is ill?

The Motivation Slump
Before you started working exclusively from home, did you find that your remote workdays were the ones where you cranked out your heavy lifting from the solitude of your home office? Are you having a different experience from that same desk? Do you find yourself feeling exhausted, depleted, uninspired?

Dr. Lee Keyes, licensed psychologist, consultant, and author of “Delivering Effective College Mental Health Services” explains the complexity that this new social climate invites. Dr. Keyes explains: “Humans are social beings and interaction is crucial to our well-being, though there is some variance in this regard. I’ve read, for example, that extraverts are having more difficulty during this time than are introverts.”

Other issues too, like what life is like at home can make remote work arrangements difficult. Dr. Keyes points out: “National crisis call data are showing an 891% increase in calls (March of 2019 vs March of 2020). Relationship issues and domestic violence are a part of that pattern…not everyone is happy to be at home.”

Another challenge that can feel emotionally overwhelming is the ongoing concern about the greater welfare. Dr. Keyes explains: “[W]e have now entered a kind of dystopia, a negative and frightening community, and this is affecting everyone’s view of the future. It may also be changing the calculus concerning values, motivations, finding meaning, safety, and more. It’s terribly easy to get lost in this negativity if we aren’t actively countering it.”

Wait, Is Today Tuesday or Friday?
The events, conferences, commencements, and meetings that once parsed our existence into distinguishable increments are cancelled. In their place is one long strange stand-in, a seemingly endless day where we may see our students and coworkers on a screen, but we don’t get to be in their company. It’s different. It’s lonely, and we’re unsure how and when it will let up. What day is this? Does it even matter?

Dr. Keyes explains: “We’ve gone from being in highly structured environments to, at least in many cases, little to no structure. This can cause us to lose our bearings. Also, home is, in theory, a refuge, a place to relax and refuel. But now we are mixing professional effort in that environment…something that can feel confusing and blur the boundaries between our roles in life.”

We can feel this blurring acutely as we struggle to share space and devices with those with whom we are quarantined. When we’re working, our kids are e-learning, no one knows what day it is or who has the charger, well-being can seem momentarily unattainable.

But We’re the “Lucky Ones”
We’re healthy. We have jobs. We have food security and comfy nests. We’re the lucky ones. So why are we struggling to sleep and crying over dog food commercials? Why can’t we focus on our work?

Dr. Keyes explains: “It’s terribly easy to feel overwhelmed by world and national events. In fact, I would argue that cognitively managing these events is simply taking up too much psychic space, sort of like what happens when you have a negative or destructive person in your life.”

How do we get a grip on this overwhelming feeling that is gnawing our motivation, making it hard to find our sense of clarity and purpose? “[T]o maintain hope and direction we must carve out space and energy to improve our corners of the world,” Dr. Keyes advises. “We can do this by thinking local, by identifying a cause or issue that is consistent with our values, and by contributing some of our time, talent, or other resources to that issue. Some of this can be done remotely, and some via appropriate physical distancing.”

Contribute to food banks. Support local businesses. Make support calls to seniors and health care workers in your family and in your neighborhood. Give blood.

There Is Precedent
We have to move past the misconception that this is unprecedented. It’s not. Plagues happen. They’ve happened throughout history. They’re devastating, but they happen. We’ll get through it. Life will change. We will develop a vaccine or immunity and then life will change again. That’s how this goes.

Dr. Keyes points out: “It is important to recall how our ancestors got through periods of war, disease, famine, and death many times before us. And not all that long ago…the Great Depression, WW2, WW1, the flu pandemic of 1918, the Civil War and Reconstruction, Jim Crow era, struggles for civil rights, and so on… we can do this. In fact, we are obligated to our forebears, descendants, and fellow human beings to do so. During all those times, young people, in particular, found creative ways to survive and thrive, and they will do so again… How do you want to respond when youth look you in the eye, looking for hope, today or in the future?”

Finding traction through this difficult time takes clarity and energy, which can be hard to amass without a game plan. Dr. Keyes recommends using Lindsay Braman’s daily isolation wellbeing to-do list.

He further recommends: “Impose structure and meaning to your day. Write a 4-5 item task list (separate from remote work) the night before. When feeling lost or overwhelmed, ask yourself this question: What is one thing I can do right now that will move me in the direction I want to go? Delay rewards (treats, surfing, social media, TV-movies, etc.) until after your list is completed. Involve at least one friend in these plans, and support, reinforce, and encourage one another.”

When you feel overwhelmed, Dr. Keyes advises: “Shrink the problem to manageable levels, then act. Follow your beliefs and passions. Hold onto your spark and share it with others.”

We will fight through this. There is loss that we will mourn and inequity that we will analyze for years to come. We need your clarity and composure so that we can get back to the work of intellectually arming those who will use this pandemic as a case study to create a different future. Be kind to yourself and others as we prepare for this worthy work.

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