Are you home and feeling alone? Are you home and wishing you could be alone for even a few minutes? The Covid-19 virus has caused many organizations to move large numbers of employees from working together at the office to working remotely at home. For other organizations, it has meant temporarily shutting its doors and having to furlough workers or let employees go. Unless you are an “essential worker,” gone is the time you spent interacting with strangers, colleagues and friends as you commuted to work, ducked out to grab a meal or run an errand, and did your job. Gone is the time you spent socializing with friends at a sporting event or volunteering alongside others in the community.
If you live alone, this abrupt change can raise the risk of experiencing the negative effects of social isolation. If you live with others, perhaps maintaining positive relationships at home has become more challenging and even more important, especially if you live in close quarters and additional stressors have been added into the mix, such as a drop in income, overseeing the education of children or caring for aging parents who live with you.
What Do You Do with Your Stress?
Research conducted by the Gallup Organization in March and April of 2020 found that 60% of Americans reported they were experiencing stress “a lot of the day,” up from 46% reporting significant stress in July-August 2019. No doubt the Covid-19 pandemic is raising stress levels due to a number of factors, including fear of contracting the virus personally, fear of a loved one contracting the virus, fear of losing one’s job and fear of not being able to meet financial obligations.
There’s another stressor people may not be consciously thinking about. Beginning in 1989, American sense of self-identity shifted to be primarily associated with a person’s employer and job status. This historic shift makes it more likely that people maintain unhealthy priorities as they strive to meet goals they feel would impress others (and themselves) such as getting the next promotion, making a certain income, driving a nice car, vacationing in an exotic location or buying their child the latest must-have item to fit in with his or her peers. If your job and your self-identity become intertwined, the job is not just about what it allows you to afford, it is also about your own self-worth and who you perceive you are in the eyes of others.
One of our colleagues, Jason Pankau, once told Mike that this shift concerned him because “when you are what you do, when you don’t, you aren’t.” Jason made a profound observation that when self-identity is so wrapped up in work at the expense of healthy relationships with family and friends, losing that job is devastating to one’s identity and sense of personal worth. Now, with the widespread job loss from Covid-19’s impact on the economy, many people may be struggling with this and we should all be on the lookout for those we can reach out to who are experiencing an identity crisis.
As stress rises and loneliness and social isolation increase, so does the likelihood that individuals may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as addictions to food, alcohol or drugs. There is also a greater risk of violence referred to as “displacement aggression.” In such cases, the perpetrator can’t act out against the person or thing that has stirred him up and instead takes it out on an innocent target. You’ve probably seen someone overreact to a situation and figured there was something else going on. Road rage can be an example of this. Perpetrators of verbal, physical or sexual aggression typically experience a release, a decline in their stress level, when they “blow off steam” and take out their own frustration on someone else. It does not excuse the behavior, but understanding displacement aggression helps explain why domestic violence rises in times of social isolation.
In his daily briefing on May 1, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo reported that domestic violence reports in the state were up 15% in March and 30% in April. “That is a frightening rate and level of increase. … This is a national epidemic. It’s a statewide epidemic.” He then spoke of measures the state had put in place to support people who are facing domestic violence or experiencing mental health issues (anxiety, depression, insomnia, loneliness, isolation, alcohol/drug consumption), assuring listeners that if they are experiencing these things,“you are not alone.”
What do you do with your stress and fear? Are you apt to turn inward and into a downward spiral, emotionally and physically? Are you tempted to turn outward toward other people in a way that is harmful to them, and possibly to you, and causes further separation? The better choice—one that will diminish the stress and fear that you feel—is to intentionally reach out and pursue meaningful connection with others.
Brené Brown, best-selling author, speaker and researcher on shame and vulnerability, recently had this to say, in the context of the pandemic: “We can be our worst selves when we’re afraid, or our very best, bravest selves. In the context of fear and vulnerability, there is often very little in between because when we are uncertain and afraid our default is self-protection. We don’t have to be scary when we’re scared. Let’s choose awkward, brave and kind. And let’s choose each other.”
To cope with changes brought about by Covid-19, people need connection now more than ever. Connection calms our nerves. When we connect with others in conversation it engages the prefrontal cortex of the brain where we make rational decisions and disengages the amygdala where the brain processes threats. We should never worry alone but rather seek the advice of others whom we trust, sharing our concerns with them, asking them for perspective then listening to and considering their ideas and opinions before making decisions or taking action. Connection may also improve your cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems’ performance, all of which could help reduce your risk of contracting Covid-19 and, if you contract it, provide physical and emotional resources to help you fight the virus.
Three Types of Relational Cultures
In our work with organizations, we have found that there are primarily three types of relational cultures: cultures of control, cultures of indifference and connection cultures. In cultures of control, those who have power or authority rule over the rest. In cultures of indifference, they are too busy with tasks and devalue spending time on relationships. People working in these kinds of environments may feel micromanaged, unappreciated or undervalued, and they are not going to give their best efforts. Cultures of control and indifference are disconnecting and lead to disengagement.
In connection cultures, those individuals with power or authority care about others and invest time to connect with them. They foster an environment in which people feel connected to one another and to the work they are doing. In a group that has a high degree of connection, you’ll find a cognitive advantage that makes people smarter and more creative, higher employee engagement,tighter strategic alignment, better decisions, a higher rate of innovation, and greater agility and adaptability to cope with faster changes taking place today. These benefits combine to provide a significant performance and competitive advantage. Connection is cultivated when leaders communicate an inspiring vision, value people and give them a voice.
Connection at Home
The power of connection and the principles of a connection culture are not only relevant in the work setting. We’re convinced that the connection our family has cultivated in our home helped us get Katie through three cancers, and helped Mike start and sustain a new business.
Our family vision has been that we care about people. This really resonated with our two daughters, both of whom have reached out to help friends as well as people in our community when those individuals were facing a hardship or crisis. Two incidents especially come to mind when they were in high school. One daughter was driving home on a Saturday night, watching the clock to be back by her curfew, when she spotted something unusual on a dark street she was passing. Despite the late hour, she and her friends carefully approached and discovered an older woman lying on the ground, a retired school teacher who had fallen and broken her hip while walking her dog. She stayed with her while the others went to the woman’s home to get help. Our other daughter stopped to help a woman sitting on the side of the road who had her hands covering her face. It turned out the woman was the victim of domestic violence. Our daughter called a friend of hers who is a policeman and he sent a squad car. We are so proud of our daughters who’ve both become caring, competent and confident young women.
The following questions might stir your thinking as you consider what your family vision might be: What are the core values that define who we are and point to what is important to us? What activities energize us? Is there a common theme in articles, books or movies that we have found to be thought-provoking? If we knew that we only had nine months to live and we had unlimited resources, what would we want to do?
The second element of a connection culture is Value and the heart of this is valuing people as unique human beings and not treating them as means to an end. In a multi-person setting, this is about being kind and considerate, and looking for ways to serve others. Especially during this time of “stay home, stay healthy,” this might be volunteering to help with meal preparation, taking care of the dishes afterward, doing some house cleaning or taking a turn at being the parent who assists the kids with managing their online schoolwork.
The third element of a connection culture is Voice. This element is generally about seeking the opinions and ideas of others, and considering that input before making decisions. Having a voice goes a long way in feeling connected. At home, make time to ask people how they are feeling and what they are doing throughout their day so you give them a chance to talk. If you can, have these be one-on-one conversations so you can give your full attention to the person. Actively listen. Resist the urge to jump right in with a solution. Mealtimes or while out for a walk present perfect opportunities to toss out an open-ended question that sparks conversation. Be sure to encourage each person to contribute.
As a nation, we are in uncharted territory. Much has changed and many have suffered. Still, there are reasons to be optimistic for the future. In time, medications will be developed that will reduce the threat from Covid-19 and allow us to be together again. If the Covid-19 pandemic and consequences trigger a great reset of self-identity and valuing relationships with family, friends and colleagues at work, we will truly be stronger. There is an opportunity that what we carry forward from our collective experience of the pandemic will usher in a new anthropomorphic age of higher levels of wellness and wellbeing, and increased organizational productivity and innovation, all stemming from embracing greater human connection.
Katharine P. Stallard co-authored this article. She is a partner of Connection Culture Group and contributor to Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work.