Curious
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Curious

An Activity for Treating the Workplace COVID Blues

Small Actions for Improved Morale

Photo by Pooja Shah/Tembo Tones

When I was not but a wee teen, my favorite Johnny Cash song was “Cocaine Blues.” At the time, the lyrics and premise seemed edgy, which, as an absolute goodie-two-shoes, made me feel a little more “alternative.”

Still, apart from that, the idea that addiction could drive bad decisions that would impact the course of your life interested me. Even though the narrator in the song seems to take personal responsibility for his actions by the end of the time, it struck that an external force was driving this internal crisis, and this impression has never left me.

I have been going back to this memory in the midst of relentless Chicago snowstorms hitting during what feels like the millionth week of our pandemic-necessitated lockdown. I’m feeling claustrophobic and sad, and my token tool for overcoming both feelings, sublimation, is just not enough. In no particular order, the past two weeks have looked like: emotional eating, binge-watching, mindless online shopping, and doomscrolling.

In other words, an external force bigger than me is starting to create an internal crisis that is spurring unhealthy decisions. Granted, cocaine and whiskey have nothing to do with this crisis. Instead, work addiction has taken the place of substance abuse in my narrative.

My complicated relationship with work aside, the reality is this: I feel cooped up, bored, and low energy all while feeling enormously pressured to seem interested, energetic, and grounded. This is one of the biggest challenges with being an emotional worker — I literally owe it to people to push down the bad vibes and put out good ones.

This brings me back to the idea of sublimation. As a coping mechanism, sublimation involves channeling negative urges (see the list of unhealthy decisions above) into more socially acceptable ones. Unfortunately, for me, “socially acceptable” has generally meant, “working a lot,” “staying busy,” and “being productive.”

Filling the empty spaces in my life with work has only accelerated my COVID blues.

Since I am working on approaching myself with curiosity rather than reproach, I looked at my so-called unhappy habits to understand what these impulses are telling me about my needs.

The answer turns out to be pretty simple: novelty.

Since many of us are spending more time in our workplaces than ever before, it stands to reason that in addition to figuring out how to work less, it’s also important we talk about how we can improve one another’s morale.

What’s missing in my life — at work, socially, creatively, and holistically — is novelty, which the pandemic has made nearly impossible to come by. Why not emotionally eat when the only thing to remind me of a simpler time is Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal? Why not watch an entire season of Outlander over a weekend when I can’t go back to my favorite place, Scotland — or anywhere, for that matter — for the foreseeable future? Why not look at every possible rug option on the Ruggable app when the promise of a colorful runner in my hallway helps deal with the unbearable monotony of being trapped in the same four walls?

It sounds cliché, but it turns out that what’s bringing me joy right now is all that I’ve got in my life that’s novel. “Try something new every day” goes from seeming like flat Insta-ready wisdom to ground-breaking revelation when two and a half feet of snow builds up around your front door. Of course, everyone seems to know this. It’s how bread baking and sea shanties became the emblems of our quarantine.

It turns out my teammates are going through the same thing, and I bet many of you reading this are, too.

Since many of us are spending more time in our workplaces than ever before, it stands to reason that in addition to figuring out how to work less, it’s also important we talk about how we can improve one another’s morale.

At Ethos, I tried a new opening activity in our team meeting that has helped at least some of us feel a little more energized in the midst of our COVID blues.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Convene as a group at the top of an already scheduled meeting. (No more meetings for this; reduce the meeting fatigue!)
  2. For two minutes on a countdown clock, have everyone list out the things in the last week that were new or novel that brought them joy
  3. Instruct them to come up with as many as possible — experiences, ideas, objects, etc.
  4. After two minutes, give them one more minute to circle the 1 to 3 they found the most energizing.
  5. Ask each person to share what they chose.
  6. End the activity by asking the group to either try one of the things they heard or do it together.

Here’s how this exercise worked for me. I recommended trying a Lush face mask (Beauty Sleep, in case you’re interested), and I talked about how taking a bath and putting on the mask helped me reset and restore and how it noticeably combatted dry skin. Not only did talking about this conjure up some gratitude, but sharing this example reminded me I can take more baths, which I did this week, to positive effect.

I also listened intently to other recommendations in the group, and I decided to try one from our intern, who is finding novelty in cooking and baking. At her suggestion, my husband and I went out and bought the ingredients for the now-famous TikTok pasta (also a suggestion from our intern, who is tasked with keeping a largely non-Zoomer team current). We made it on a Saturday, and it was not only delicious — it was a fun, novel thing to do that didn’t involve screens or mindlessness.

And right now, when so much is in flux and stasis at the same time, going to work and talking about simple things to look forward to feels like an act of self-care. I hope it might for you, too.

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