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Managing mental health can help us stay focused as the pandemic looms on

February 10, 2022, 11:30 AM UTC
man walking in front of sign that reads "Life is too short to be unhappy".
More than two-thirds of employees say their burnout worsened during the pandemic. To stay focused, you need to understand what truly matters to you.
Nathan Stirk—Getty Images

The latest surge in COVID cases has brought with it a sense of never-ending burnout, grief, trauma, and pandemic fatigue, in large part because we are now being asked to “keep calm and carry on” with school, work, parenting, and more–even as we continue to silently stress about our health and the state of the world around us.

This goes beyond the typical stress of to-do lists and knowing how to prioritize your own needs and responsibilities. In 2022, it also means responding to difficult situations with no clear answers—and navigating our interpersonal relationships—more effectively. 

Speaking from experience, both as a cognitive scientist who’s spent two decades studying how our brains respond to stressful situations, as president of Barnard College, parenting my own pre-teen daughter during Covid-19, balancing all of one’s responsibilities is challenging.

I also know there are ways we can work within our minds to better focus on tasks, relationships, and ourselves.  

Be clearer about what needs to get done

Though our brains are designed to handle multiple things at once, we must realize we’re limited capacity systems. In plain terms: There’s only so much information our mind can hold. Too much multitasking can overwhelm our brains, and we might stagnate under the lack of focus.

Our working memory is what allows us to keep different pieces of information in our brains concurrently. If you’re playing Wordle while watching Emily in Paris, that’s your working memory in action. But if we try to do multiple things at once—or expect our teams to—we end up hindering our working memory’s ability to process different types of information. We’re also more likely to make a mistake on an important assignment.

How can you translate this to your team? Start by being specific about what needs to get done and when. When you provide clear expectations, your employees can avoid the risk of overwhelming their working memories and determine what they need to prioritize. You empower them to cognitively offload items on their to-do lists. As they dedicate their mental resources to one project at a time, they’ll perform better.

Empathize, empathize, empathize

These past two years have weighed heavily on our collective mental health. That’s why it’s crucial to show empathy for our colleagues—both emotional and cognitive.

Research often talks about two types of empathy that inform how we relate to different situations. When we show emotional empathy, we’re relating to one another through common feelings and experiences. Cognitive empathy describes our ability to understand someone else’s emotions or concerns. Both are needed right now.

You can put emotional and cognitive empathy into practice by making it clear to your team that you’re all in this together. Have honest conversations about when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed. At the same time, be understanding of the struggles your team is going through in their own lives.

Understand the circumstances

The past two years have been marked by high levels of stress and uncertainty. Our homes have become offices, gyms, classrooms, and daycare centers. We’re all exhausted—and more than two-thirds of employees say their burnout worsened during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, your colleagues may sometimes mess something up at work—or even be short-tempered.

Given these circumstances, don’t fall into the trap of the fundamental attribution error. That’s when our minds assume someone’s less-than-stellar behavior is a product of who they are as a person, rather than a response to a difficult situation.

It’s important to make a concerted effort to recognize that someone’s bad day isn’t indicative of who they are as an employee. Show them patience and understanding daily. More than that, encourage them to unplug from work and invest in their personal lives.

Make time for mindfulness

If you want to bring your best self to every part of your life, you must invest in your wellbeing. Starts with practicing mindfulness—and being present in the moment to allow yourself to experience your feelings as they occur.

My research has shown that overthinking often undermines performance, which can significantly impact how you show up and perform at work, at home, and in your day-to-day life. When you set aside time to try and understand your emotions—and receive your feelings without judgment—you become more adept at alleviating your anxiety and handling the stress of everyday life. In fact, research indicates that practicing mindfulness for the long term can boost brain activity linked to “self-awareness, emotion regulation, and attentional control.”

In short: Mindfulness helps you understand what truly matters.

This year won’t be without its curveballs. But if we take the time to focus on our responsibilities, our relationships, and ourselves, we’ll be better prepared to handle whatever comes our way.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is the president of Barnard College and a leading cognitive scientist, who has decades of experience in the field of human cognition researching how we cope with anxiety and moments of exceptional stress. 

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