Understandably news of the Coronavirus is everywhere. Everyone is talking about it. All the news channels, on social media are buzzing with it. Families and friends talk about little else. If you are like me at all you’re trying to manage your fears and stay healthy. Maybe you are also reflecting on what this means for all of us. We are having to change our behaviour to prevent the spread of the disease. What do these changes mean for the future?
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the last week.
Here are 4 ways I think the Coronavirus could be scary beyond the obvious danger to our health and wellbeing.
The Coronavirus blame game
When people are scared, they tend to look for someone to blame. Something of that is happening now with this situation.
We’ve all heard the awful stories of people being beaten up because they look Chinese and are suspected of carrying the virus. Right wing politicians looking for a scapegoat for the Coronavirus have pointed the finger at refuges and refugee camps. In the early days of the virus reaching the USA, Trump referred to it as hoax and fake news, blaming the media and the Democratic Party. Even now, Trump is still referring to the disease as, ‘the Chinese Virus.’
We can hope to shrug off this kind of crazy behaviour, but it sets a poor precedent. In France, President Macron has declared that we are at war with Coronavirus. It can rally people to feel that they are fighting a common enemy. It might even bring them closer together. However, if things go on for too long, or get a lot, worse people might look for an outlet for their frustration.
The long-term impact of social distancing
As each day passes, we hear of more countries where people are being advised to work from home. Schools are being closed and large gatherings cancelled. Here in Amsterdam we’re just getting the first signs of spring. After a miserable wet few weeks, the sun is shining. It’s typical terrace weather—when we can all enjoy sitting in cafes by the water, watching the world go by. Last Sunday all cafes and restaurants in Amsterdam were closed. Now we can only enjoy the spring from our homes and balconies.
Of course, the reasons for social distancing are clear. It could be one of our most important tools in slowing the progress of the virus. However, human beings are social creatures. We need social contact and thrive on it. When we feel lonely and isolated it can affect our mental health, increasing anxiety and stress. Research is also showing that it can damage our physical health too.
I have always enjoyed the custom of shaking hands when you meet someone that is practiced in the Netherlands. When I go to see my dentist, or doctor, we shake hands. It’s considered polite and connects people. People in Amsterdam also give three kisses on greeting friends and family. Of course, none of that is happening now. I worry is that it will be lost forever. When will know that it is alright to shake someone’s hand again? Will we want to stay cautious and simply maintain the new communication habits we acquired during the crisis?
Yesterday evening my partner and I were watching a series on Netflix. The people greeted each other with hugs. We found ourselves reacting with surprise, ‘Gosh they were still doing that!’
It’s been suggested that we could refer to the whole strategy as physical distancing, rather than social distancing. This term encourages keeping the distance we need to combat the spread of the virus but keeps open the possibility of social contact in some acceptable form. It could help us to continue to appreciate the value of social contact and to find safe ways to preserve it through these uncertain times.
Coronavirus makes elderly people more isolated
In January 2018, Theresa May famously appointed a Minister for Loneliness. Organisations such as Age UK have long been instrumental in raising awareness of the effects of loneliness among elderly people. Society is being encouraged to recognise loneliness and to respond by offering connection and friendship.
Now we are faced with the reality of some of our most vulnerable citizens being isolated in their homes for an indefinite period of time. We know it is to protect their safety but if their wellbeing suffers from it, that in itself will affect their ability to withstand the virus.
The BBC has decided to postpone its plans to cancel the free TV licenses for the over-75s because of the Coronavirus. That’s a start. The journalist and TV presenter, Joan Bakewell was on a news programme on TV explaining how she was confined to her home with a cough. A neighbour would be leaving her dinner on her doorstep so she wouldn’t have to cook. We’re going to need many such acts of kindness, and a great deal of ingenuity to help isolated older people feel connected.
The Corona Virus puts us more online than ever
Last week my Dutch class changed from a weekly class in the Language School to an online session. The teacher did a great job and it was a wonderful lesson. Just about everyone I know is working from home now and many school children are having their lessons online.
Microsoft, Google and Zoom are all offering free access to their online meeting platforms. This at least offers a bit of good news amongst all the gloom. A client told me today that his company had held their weekly staff meeting online and it had been great. It’s good to hear that we can adapt and make things work. New ideas and ways of doing things can bring positive change.
My question is more to do with how people will feel when it’s time to get back to normal. It was so much more convenient to save on travel time and be cosily at home to have my Dutch class. When the teacher pointed out that we would continue this way next week, everyone was quite pleased. Will we be willing to go back to the usual weekly meeting? Research is showing how our personal technology is insinuating itself more deeply into our lives. Is managing this virus going to accelerate that process?
What about our besieged highstreets? They were already in crisis and now no-one can go shopping except for food and medicine. We heard last week that Amazon is looking for an additional 100,00 staff to help it cope with the huge increase in demand. Will our local shops still be there when this passes? Will we be willing to go back to visiting the shops personally?
What can we do?
Each of us has a responsibility to take care of ourselves in a meaningful way. It’s only going to be through facing our fears and working with them that we will be able to have the clarity of mind that is needed right now. Things are changing so fast. Old ways of doing things are quickly discarded if they get in the way of protecting ourselves from this threat.
We need to stay calm and be able to assess what we are doing, and to know why we are doing it.
It’s a time for clear self-awareness, along with a deep awareness of other people. Just as each of us is vulnerable and afraid, so is everyone else. If the coronavirus shows one thing plainly it is how interconnected we all are. The actions we take are vital to save lives now, but they also have the power to affect how our lives will be when the Coronavirus dies down. Sure, we will need time to relax and try not to think about it all. It’s important not to get too intense but holding a big perspective is very important.
As we close down and withdraw into our homes and family groups, we need to take with us the perspective of all the many thousands of people doing the same. Just as we don’t want to suffer, or bad things to happen to us, neither do they. If we can open our concern for ourselves and our loved to include concern for all the others, we will be taking a big step towards ensuring that we all manage to come through this well.
Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.
Fortunately, I do not know anyone who sets out on their day intending to be not kind to anyone at all. It’s probably the same for you too. So why is it that in any ordinary day all sorts of unkind things happen?
Let’s look at our own behaviour at work. We could ask ourselves if in the rough and tumble of an average working day we find ourselves unintentionally being not kind. The thing is that individually each action may seem so small as to be insignificant. It can be the cumulative effect which is damaging.
Often it is because of habit, or insecurity, or pressure that we fall short in being kind. So, here is my list of six lazy ways it is easy to fall into being not kind. I call them ‘lazy’ because they are not necessarily intentional—in fact, usually they aren’t. They are largely due to not noticing what is going on with other people, or how your behaviour is affecting them.
1. Being pre-occupied can mean being not kind
When we are stressed, or really busy then it is all too easy to become turned in on ourselves. Our priorities take centre stage and our ability to see what is going on around us is reduced.
At work this can easily become a sense of self-importance. This can lead to the feeling that what you are doing is so vital that it takes precedence over everything else. It gives us permission to prioritise our own story and not pay so much attention to other peoples’.
It can creep up on you in quite a subtle way. From your point of view, you are simply trying to do a good job. There is no intention to let your kindness slip but that is what happens when you become too self-focused. You don’t give your full attention to the needs of people around you and you miss things.
2. Gossip can lead to unkindness
I would be willing to bet that you are not the workplace gossip at your job. They are usually pretty easy to spot and not so difficult to politely avoid. It’s much more difficult to manage your own reactions and emotions without unintentionally being not kind.
If you are in any kind of team-leader, management role everything you say has an enhanced significance for the rest of the team. When someone in your team is struggling then how you talk about them in the group is very important. You need to find a way to give them difficult feedback without damaging their confidence and their ability to learn. They will be listening to every word you say, and what others tell them you said with a sensitivity heightened by fear and anxiety.
Whatever your role is, there are always people at work who are less easy to get on with than others. It is these people that you need to take special care to talk to and talk about with great skill. Just one off the cuff comment made in irritation can cause tremendous harm.
How does your workplace handle feedback and constructive criticism? It’s another example of something that, when it is done well, can help a colleague move through challenges. However, if it is done without kindness then it can be an enormous blow.
Most of us have probably experienced receiving both kinds of feedback ourselves. One of my most useful work experiences was when a colleague—not a boss, or manager—asked to talk to me and set out to inform me of all my faults as she saw them. It was a devastating experience but when I recovered, I realised I had an excellent list of what not to do if you want to give someone helpful feedback. I still draw on that list to this day.
The main thing that I realised was you need to give the kind of feedback that would be helpful to you, yourself. That is the only feedback that people can really hear and respond to.
4. Blame will make you not kind
According to research, blaming mistakes on other people is socially contagious. Observing someone blaming their mistakes on other people can lead to you doing the same thing to protect your image. Such a cycle does not help anyone.
In a workplace where blame is part of the norm, staff are less likely to succeed, and much less likely to be creative. Anyone who is in the habit of blaming others misses out as well. You don’t get the chance to learn from your mistakes if you don’t take responsibility for them.
It seems that optimistic people blame less, and pessimistic people more—with the prize going to narcissists.
For most of us the time to watch out for lazily blaming someone else for a mistake is when we are tired, worried, or over-worked. It’s not that we want someone else to get into trouble—it’s just that we don’t want to have to deal with it ourselves.
It would seem that kindness and bullying are pretty far apart—how could someone interested in promoting kindness also engage in any kind of bullying activity?
Let’s take it down a notch—instead of bullying think of steamrollering, pressurising, over-persuading someone. When I think back to my years of managing an international non-profit, I am pretty sure that I used tactics like this. I was convinced that what I was doing was so important that people needed to get on board. Indeed, what I was doing was important, but I forgot to treat each person I dealt with as an individual, with their own strengths and weaknesses. I wanted everyone to go at my pace and it exhausted some people.
Does your enthusiasm and passion for your work ever translate as pressure for other people?
6. Not listening is not kind
Once again, we rarely simply ignore someone when they speak to us—especially at work—but we often listen in a distracted way. We’re busy, the speaker is taking too long to make their point, and so our attention wanders. The thing is that we feel it when someone is not giving us their full attention and it’s unsettling. Our ability to communicate is reduced.
When we don’t listen with full attention then we don’t hear all the levels that are being communicated and we don’t pick up on the accompanying body language, or emotional signs. That’s where the unkindness can come in. We miss stuff—someone’s concern, or even distress—and the person feels overlooked. Maybe it is simply information that we don’t completely process, which leads to mistakes further down the road.
It’s not only distraction which blocks our listening, it can be our opinions and prejudices as well. If we think differently to the speaker, we tend to listen through a critical web which filters out the points we just want to refute. It’s even worse if we don’t like the person who is talking to us because then we listen through a whole range of remembered slights and disagreements.
Wanting to fix what the person is telling you can also get in the way of listening deeply to what they are saying. We are so busy thinking of the response we want to make to put them right that we don’t listen fully to what we are being told.
Something to remember
None of us is perfect and there will be days at work where our kindness might be less than others but watching out for these six lazy ways we can be not kind can become a good reminder. For me, the underlying basic principle is to try and put myself in the shoes of the other person, or people. An easy way to do this is to ask how you yourself would feel if you were being treated in any of these six ways. Think how it feels to be the subject of gossip, or to receive withering criticism. No-one wants to be pressured to behave in a certain way and no-one enjoys being blamed—especially when the blame is unfair. We are all busy and trying our best and we all like to be listened to with kindness. Remembering this is a basic key to avoiding being not kind.
If you have found the ideas in this post interesting you might like to look at my new online course, How to Make Kindness Matter at Work. You can find out more here.
Nearly everyone I know is back from their holiday now. There’s a big sign up in our street warning drivers that schools are open again and children will be crossing the road. Autumn is already nibbling around the edges, with a definite chill in the air. It’s certainly getting dark earlier.
It seems only a few weeks ago that people were talking about where they were going on holiday, or where they had just come back from. Now today, our local supermarket has started selling Speculaas, a cookie traditionally eaten on St. Nicholas’s Dayon 5 December. The summer holidays are definitely over.
Personally, I love autumn but many people I know are suffering from post-holiday blues. They feel back in the normal round and the next holiday feels too far away.
What makes the holidays special?
1. We try new things
Don’t you love the feeling of exploration and adventure during the holidays?
My brother-in-law was recently photographed entering a 5,500-year-old long barrow in the Cotswoldson a weekend away. Not everyone’s cup of tea but he is a history enthusiast and sites like this are his passion. My partner and I were recently in Drenthe,a northern province in Holland where there are ancient Hunebedden sites.No-one is sure what these sites were used for but they could have been used for burials. We were enchanted by the ancient majesty of these places and spent ages looking at as many different sites as we could.
Different food, new customs, trying out summer sports are all wonderfully freeing and engaging. Trying new things opens up new possibilities and helps us to break out of our shell.
2. A holiday can mean time with friends and family
Unless you’ve chosen to go on a solo holiday, time away usually means that we have a chance to interact with friends, partners, family members with more freedom. So much of our everyday life we are juggling too many things– family, work, leisure. It can be hard to feel any of it is proper quality time.
The holidays are times when you can play, chat and catch up with your family without always looking at the clock. Many of us have fond childhood memories of getting to hang out more with our parents because we were all on holiday together.
3. There is freedom from routine
On our holidays we suddenly find ourselves transported away from our usual routine. We can get up when we want, go to bed when we want – the day is ours’ to spend as we wish. The stress of keeping up and managing it all can start to fade away.
There is a wonderful feeling of freedom in this. We can be spontaneous because there is no schedule to keep to. If we are having an important conversation or reading a great book, we can just stay with it. Everything feels possible.
4. It’s possible to relax on your holidays
Freedom like this helps us to finally unwind. It seems that for most people we need at least 8 daysbefore we can feel that we have actually arrived on holiday. We’re stressed from work and the rush to get things ready for our holiday. There’s the journey to recover from. We need to get used to our new surroundings and find our way around.
Once this has all settled, we can truly begin to let ourselves relax.
5. The space during the holidays feels endless
Then there is really a sense of space opening up. Space for ourselves, space to rest, space to play. This is the real reason why holidays are so important. We need this connection to a different part of ourselves, with different possibilities.
So, how do we overcome our after-the-holidays blues?
The main there here is to look at what our holiday is telling us about the rest of our life. Many of us are experiencing so much stress that we don’t know how life can be without it. Too much of the time we are so caught up in everyday life that we don’t take proper care of ourselves. Let’s look again and what really makes a holiday special.
Ask yourself these questions—then try out the suggestions:
When did you last try something new?
New experiences help to inspire us and keep us fresh. They expose us to new ideas and give us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves. If you have not tried anything new for more than a month maybe this is something for you to look at. It can be small – trying a new café or restaurant, changing your hair style, wearing that scarf your sister-in-law bought you and you’ve never worn.
It helps us not to feel that we are caught in a repeating loop that just goes from day to day.
Do you prioritise spending time with friends and family?
During a nine year study, researchers found that people who lack social ties were about three times more likely to die during those nine years than those who have strong relationships with their friends and family.Research also indicates that even people with unhealthy lifestyles that are able to maintain strong relationships are more likely to live longer than those without social connections. Spending time with your family and friends can help lead you to a longer life.
Yet somehow, we too often push our time with friends and family to the bottom of our to do list. There is always this idea that we’ll get to it later, or when things are less busy. Before we know where we are 6 months have gone by and we have not had an evening with our best friend.
Take a look at your agenda and make a date with a friend or family member right away.
Are you trapped in your routine?
Perhaps you never really saw yourself as a person who would set up and follow strict routines? For many of us, part of growing up is finding the capacity to organise our time in the most creative way. The trouble is we are juggling so many different parts of ourselves – worker, parent, friend, lover, … and yes, yourself! It’s easy to become stressed and let our routine begin to squeeze us, instead of being something useful.
Something that I find helpful is at least once a week change something in your routine. Again, it does not need to be a big thing. You can do something in a different order. Try cycling instead of taking a bus. Drink tea instead of coffee. Decide to have lunch out in a café. See if you can do without some of your normal activities – are they necessary, or just a habit.
Changing your routine helps you to feel in control, and less like a victim of your daily round. It’s refreshing!
What is your average stress level?
If it takes us up to eight days to unwind on your holidays what is that telling us about our stress level day to day? When was the last time you took a long hard look at how much stress you are dealing with?
In my experience, meditation is the best way I know of to work with stress and to understand something about how my mind works. Have you ever given it a try?
How much space do you have?
A helpful trick is to learn how to find and use small moments of space that open up even in the busiest days. Bringing ourselves into the present moment and dropping whatever is on our mind just for a while can have a powerful effect in opening up space. It cuts through worry and busyness and allows a moment to refresh. So, don’t cover up the small free moments in your day but enjoy them to the full.
Holidays are very special time with lots of opportunities to enhance our wellbeing. We can also use them as a mirror to check out and see how we handle the ordinary day-to-day events of our lives. If we take seriously what we discover then we can bring a holiday spirit into every day.
A while back I was having quite a bit of knee trouble and it was hard to get around. I fly a lot for my work and so I needed to rely on airport assistance for a couple of trips.
Basically, you get put into a wheelchair, or on to a buggy and are zipped through passport control and security at top speed with minimum inconvenience. Unless you feel being delivered like a package to your plane counts as an inconvenience.
Like most of us, I value my independence and was not too keen on having to ask for help. Added to that was the worry that this temporary situation might turn out to be longer lasting than I wanted. All in all, it was a vulnerable time.
Meeting the people whose job is as to provide me with assistance was an eye opener. I came to sort them into one of four groups.
The young people who don’t relate to what is going on with you.
These are generally young people on the first rung of the ladder who just wants to get the job done. They absolutely do not want to spend their time imagining what it must be like to spend any time at all in a wheel chair. It has nothing to do with them and the prospect seems too remote from their own experience.
With this group you just feel vaguely irrelevant.
The more experienced worker who has been assigned to airport assistance temporarily and is enjoying the novelty.
At one point, I spent the half an hour waiting for my gate to come up and my ‘carer’ had to wait with me. She spent the time telling me about the problems she was having with another member of staff making unwanted advances to her. There was an underlying subtle message that I was expected to give back something for the privilege of being driven around the airport. My assistance provider had a captive audience and wanted to make the most of it. I played my part and did my best to listen and give whatever advice I could.
At least I felt like a human being, even if one that was supposed to work for their care.
The expert carer with pride in their work.
Make no mistake, once you sit in the wheelchair you are a captive audience for whatever comes to you. One of my most unnerving encounters was with an airport assistance person who actually took immense pride in his work and tried his very best to give top quality support.
He explained that he preferred to do without the lifts and pulleys that can be used to get people on and off planes and resort to the strength of his own arms. This sounds good but it meant that as we transferred to the airport bus to take us from the ‘plane to the terminal, he tipped my wheelchair almost on its back to get me on to the bus—without using the lift.
At one point I felt quite worried. I could imagine him lifting me bodily into the car that my friend had waiting for me at the airport. In spite of his enthusiasm, or perhaps because of it, I felt like a project rather than a person.
I have met people so solicitous of my feelings that I have felt concerned to reassure them that I am all right and do not expect to have to do this procedure more than a few times.
In some ways, this was the most difficult group to handle. They were so sorry for me and so anxious to get things right. I felt burdened by their concern.
What did I learn from my wheelchair experience?
Overall, the whole experience touched me very much in seeing how natural it is for us to wish to help others. Everyone who helped me as part of this service was kind and polite and many have done more than was asked of them. Happily, I did just need the help for a limited period of time, but it has changed the way I look at other people in similar situations. I hope I can see a bit more deeply.
The main thing that I learnt was that wanting to be a help is not enough. To really help, with no fuss, you need to have the extraordinary skill of being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes—or in this case, wheelchair. It is possible to tell instinctively if someone has cared for a friend or relative with mobility problems because they know how to do this. People with this experience know you have to drop you own ideas of how you think the job needs to be done. Instead you try to imagine what you would need if you were in that position. It’s not easy but those who can do it stand out a mile from the rest.
It’s a pity that the people who do this work do not receive some basic training on mindfulness and empathy skills. They give so much already it would be great for them to have support to know how to do it even more effectively.
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