Pandemic Flux: Why Many of Us Are Rethinking … Everything
Recently, I have been reflecting on the “Big Quit” that seems to be happening across many workplaces and documented in countless articles. Some of those reflections are described in my recent two-part blog on the New Rules for Hiring and Post Pandemic Retention.
Originally I’d assumed the massive workplace turnover was due in part to so many people re-evaluating various aspects of their lives – including their jobs. But now I think there’s even more to it.
As the spring and summer evolved and vaccines were becoming accessible, “many of us were experiencing relief, joy, even euphoria,” writes Social Psychologist Dr. Amy Cuddy and JillEllyn Riley in the Washington Post on August 11, “as we began to imagine that we were turning the corner the pandemic.” We started to realize that we could cautiously start to see family, friends, take more day trips and local vacations, etc. Small business owners who had been forced to close down or operate under extreme and costly restrictions were starting to breathe a sigh of relief that things could soon get better.
Now it is fall and the Covid-related headlines are not especially encouraging. It feels like we’re in limbo. Or to be technical, I think we’re all experiencing a kind of society-wide state of “liminality.” In Psychology, liminality is the movement or transition from a significant stage of life to another and the feelings of uncertainty that it can invoke. Life events like graduations, job loss or change, and divorce are examples of life-changing events that disrupt our daily routines and see us navigating a period of ambiguity. So the longer this pandemic has gone on, the longer we’ve had to deal with this period of uncertainty.
This prolonged liminal state seems to be taking a collective mental health toll on us. One uncomfortable psychological process that’s happening is that we are being denied “a clearly delineated fresh start moment,” or milestone, says Wharton Business School professor and author Katy Milkman. Instead, the goalposts keep moving. “Clearly demarcated fresh starts give us renewed motivation and help us pursue important goals. But for most of us, that clear fresh start hasn’t materialized.”
Plus, for so many of us, we’re tired from the ongoing readjusting and recalibrating to our new circumstances. It seems like Dr. Amy Cuddy and her co-writer JillEllyn Riley are reading our minds when they say:
“But now, many people are experiencing a starkly different set of feelings — blunted emotions, spikes in anxiety and depression, and a desire to drastically change something about their lives. If this sounds familiar, you might be one of the many people experiencing what we’ve begun to refer to as “pandemic flux syndrome.” It’s admittedly not a clinical term, but it seems to capture something about the moment we’re living through (Cuddy and Riley, Washington Post, August 11, 2021).”
How Uncertainty May be Affecting our Work-Related Choices
Cuddy and Riley note in their Washington Post article that people who tend toward anxiety might be feeling compelled to make major life changes – including shaking up their work lives. In contrast, people who tend toward depression are feeling the need to withdraw. They argue that both reactions are grounded in the desire to escape from the pandemic. In other words, our current circumstances are triggering some (acknowledged or unacknowledged) anxiety. With so much happening that is outside of our control, we may feel especially motivated to assert our agency by taking hold of our careers, rather than going with the flow. Hence, The Big Quit, or the Turnover Tsunami.
For others, however, our current circumstances are triggering some (acknowledged or unacknowledged) depression. Using Cuddy’s and Riley’s reasoning, this may be linked to a desire to withdraw or resist a return to the physical workplace. For some BIPOC and other underrepresented employees, this reluctance to return to the physical workplace is especially legitimate since they have been effective at working remotely for almost 18 months with the peace of mind associated with the absence of systemic and individual racism and the associated trauma.
Months before George Floyd’s murder and long before most employers were seriously working through the logistics of a return to the physical workplace, psychologists were predicting that the mental health pandemic would carry deep and long-lasting repercussions above and beyond the pandemic.
What To Do About Pandemic Flux?
This phenomenon is still so new that there are no long-term research studies or best practices to guide us. Instead, I will share some advice that may seem counterintuitive coming from a career and executive coach. Whenever I know that a friend, family member, or client has gone through a significant life event, I usually encourage them not to make huge decisions or change their careers until they have recovered. With so much happening internally, it can be difficult to know what to change. Instead, whenever possible, I suggest that they test the waters in smaller, less invasive ways, such as travelling, trying a new hobby, or volunteering.
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