The work of our first responders during the coronavirus pandemic has been critically important — they are some of the many selfless individuals who have helped to keep our society functional, and keep us healthy. But there are also hidden heroes who are stepping up to serve their communities in this time of need. These are the employees who staff our banks, grocery stores, and all other essential businesses. These individuals — the ones who are delivering our meals and mail, performing transactions at the bank, driving trains and buses to keep public transport alive, or providing customer support — are often stressed and scared too, particularly when they have to leave their homes and go to work each day, and they may not always be getting support or acknowledgement for their critical work. 

“In this very unusual situation, it is important to remember that the employees who continue working are not only risking their own health, but the health of their families because the virus is so contagious,” Mark Kramer, M.B.A., J.D., a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and researcher of social impact, tells Thrive. That’s true of first responders, and it’s also true of all frontline and essential business employees. 

The stress of not being able to socially distance themselves and having to go to work each day can be considerable, and in turn, that can make it harder to perform at work and harder to feel happy and at ease while at home. “They’re worried about getting sufficient interpersonal support from their management — who are also stressed — to do their job well,” Sigal Barsade, Ph.D., a professor of management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, tells Thrive. These workers may also have an increased workload because other employees are calling out sick. “They are likely surrounded by many anxious people throughout the day, and that emotional context can unconsciously increase their own anxieties,” she adds. 

The first step in coping as an essential worker is accepting how you feel. “Know that it is normal to be stressed or have anxiety,” Barsade says. Once you’ve accepted that it’s OK to be overwhelmed and fearful during this time, you can then turn to unpacking your emotions. Are you engaging in behaviors that are only increasing your anxious thoughts, like endlessly scrolling through social media? Or perhaps you’re speaking to many other anxious people, fueling what Barsade calls “emotional contagion.” “When you have a lot of anxiety coming from many different sources, including family, friends, social media, news, and more, you can have a cycle of anxious contagion that makes you more stressed than you actually need to be,” Barsade explains. 

However, Barsade says that the more you become aware of the sources of your anxiety, the better equipped you are to handle them. If it’s social media that sends you spiraling, setting a news cutoff time and encouraging any stressed out family members to do the same, can help mitigate the upset you might feel after scrolling through your newsfeed and help keep anxiety in check. You can also benefit from reminding yourself of the deep importance and meaning in the work you’re doing — while it’s certainly stressful, you should also take well-deserved pride in performing an essential service for your community. Indeed research shows that those who find meaning and purpose in their work experience less anxiety.  Barsade also recommends leaning into practices that bring you a sense of calm, like meditating, trying at-home workouts, and engaging in positive (virtual) interactions with friends and family.

For many essential workers, heading to work in these challenging times isn’t a source of anxiety we can completely eradicate. But these Microsteps can help protect both physical and mental well-being while on the job during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Each morning before work, put a few spare napkins or tissues in your bag. 

Use them to open doors and reduce contact with surfaces in the course of your day.

Ask your colleagues to say “hands!” if they notice you touching your face. 

Having others hold you accountable will help you build awareness of the triggers that lead to idle face touching — with a bit of humor, too. 

Swap a handshake for an elbow bump or another friendly gesture. 

Even a warm smile can help us feel the power of connection from a safe personal distance. 

When you’re washing your hands, take the 20 seconds to think of three things you are grateful for. 

Taking this time to reflect on what you’re grateful for will help you meet C.D.C. guidelines for lowering your risk of viral infection while reinforcing a more positive mindset.

Wipe down your workstation at the end of the day

Consider this a way to physically wipe away your stresses from the day while keeping viral contaminants at bay. 

Every time you walk through your front door, apply hand sanitizer. 

By habit stacking this new routine on top of an existing behavior, you’ll make sure you’re automatically cleansing any germs and protecting yourself and others.

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