When Worry Overtakes Work

Many professionals are struggling to get through the day, consumed by worry for their friends and family amid the outbreak. Some strategies to consider.

Published: Apr 3, 2020

For the last two days, Sara has only had one thing on her to-do list: finish up the last few slides of a presentation and send it off to her team. Under normal circumstances, she would have had it done within an hour. But between worrying about her sister, an emergency-room doctor in New York City, and her elderly aunt, who continues to ignore stay-at-home orders, Sarah found herself with no motivation to finish the task.

Indeed, many of us right now are worried about our family and friends—older relatives who are at greater risk of getting seriously ill from the virus, friends who are on the front lines in hospitals, kids who are bored or don't understand the crisis. And as a whole, emotional health is suffering: according to a March 24 reading of the weekly Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index, the percentage of people reporting a deterioration of their emotional well-being was 43%, up from 29% the week prior.

Normally, distractions eat up the work day. In tough times, they might save the work day.

But taming your worries to get through the day isn’t easy. Here are some strategies to try.

Recognize what’s beyond your control
Much of our anxiety comes from attempting to control uncontrollable situations. Experts say it’s basic human instinct. “There’s a part of our brain that’s a dinosaur brain,” says Val Olson, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. “Whenever we encounter an unknown, it tries to protect us from danger and send our body into action, but when there’s nothing we can do, we start spinning around in that cycle.”

It’s important to remind yourself that you cannot control other people’s actions, nor can you single-handedly prevent your loved ones from coming into harm’s way. The best you can do is let people know you’re there to support them, offer help, and try to influence their behavior instead of control it. For example, in a conversation with an elderly relative who continues to go to the grocery store every day, you might mention how wonderful it’s been for you to have your groceries delivered and hope that sparks interest. “It’s a combination of putting your own mask on first and recognizing that you cannot make someone do something,” says Olson.

Divvy up responsibility where possible
It’s possible that the worry you feel is a stress you’ve created by overextending yourself. Look for ways to make your own life easier. For example, instead of aiming to call your 95-year-old uncle in the nursing home every day, see if you can work out a calling schedule with other family members; not only will it give you a bit more headspace, but it’ll ensure that your uncle still hears from someone daily.

Look for small wins
Worrying can make you feel entirely helpless. But taking any positive action, no matter how small, can help chip away at that feeling and keep you focused. For example, you might donate to funds for first responders, sign up for virtual volunteering with a cause you care about on Idealist.org, or even leave a thank-you note for the delivery person who’s about to drop food at your door. “In times like these, gratitude is important,” says Sean Carney, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.

If you’ve got kids at home, try to find activities that keep all of you at ease. “Turn a stressful situation into something they remember,” says Olson. “Have special movie nights, listen to their fears, and don’t tell them not to feel what they’re feeling.”

Lean into distraction
Normally, distractions eat up the work day. In tough times, they might save the work day. If you’re struggling with worry, call a friend you trust and catch up; it could be just the release you need to come back to your work with focus. Experts also recommend limiting your exposure to the news and making room in your day for more laughter. “Humor is probably one of the best tools right now,” says Olson. “It takes away the fear and the stress. I think everyone should be watching funny videos in times like these.”


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