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Productivity vs. Self-care: Finding the Right Balance

Neon Sign That Reads And Breathe

When will it end?

We’re months deep into this COVID-19 pandemic, yet uncertainty continues to plague American society. Companies large and small are navigating the complexities of returning employees to the office as states strive to open up—and we’re required to wear masks everywhere from Sam’s Club to Starbucks. Many employees are feeling pressure to return to the office, but are concerned about their safety in doing so. And millions of parents are wondering how they’ll juggle responsibilities if their kids must resume their school studies from home this fall.

Whether we’re re-entering the office or continuing to work from home, our stress levels are through the roof. Nearly 70% of surveyed U.S. workers claimed this is the most stressful time of their careers—even compared to Sept. 11 and the Great Recession—according to an April survey by Ginger, an on-demand mental health company. We see the effects of this stress in the increased number of antidepressant, anti-anxiety, and anti-insomnia medications being prescribed.

Large corporations aren’t immune. Blind, an anonymous social network with 3.2M users in large companies, conducted three studies. In the first study, the total percentages from Expedia, Facebook and Amazon revealed that:

  • 57% of surveyed professionals feared being laid off
  • 23.7% have looked for new ways to supplement incomes
  • 40.6% believe it will take 6 to 12 months for life to go back to normal

Blind’s third study gauged employees’ emotional well-being due to social distancing. Overall, 56.4% of the more than 10,000 responses reported feeling more anxious as they worked from home. Broken down by company, the study showed:

  • 44.7% of Apple professionals feel increasingly anxious
  • 49.2% of Capital One employees
  • 62.5% of Salesforce team members
  • 61.2% of LinkedIn workers

Even before the pandemic, America was experiencing a mental health crisis. A Cigna study in January found that 61% of American workers said they were lonely even before they were confined to their homes. Extending far beyond our borders, depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity, according to the World Health Organization.

The internet is awash with articles about how to cope by filling your supposed free time. Others argue that “Productivity Is Not Working”—that no amount of self optimization can shield us from the reality of the “international econo-pathological clusterf*ck.”

So the question remains: How do we navigate all the different dimensions of this? How do we prove our value to our company—if we’re still fortunate enough to be employed—in a time when we might not have as much work and our minds are racing with untold “what ifs”?

Join me for a candid look at productivity—and mental health—in a pandemic.

Always on. Burning out?

First, let’s acknowledge what we all know to be true. Anxiety affects our focus and makes it much harder to get things done—especially when we’re bombarded by a steady stream of bad news. The trick is to stay informed about what’s going on in the world without seeing every distressing headline, stock market sell-off, or combative tweet.

With that in mind, here are some tips for dealing with anxiety about your productivity:

  • Limit social media exposure: That’s right, back away from the phone. Or at least limit your Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram consumption to certain times of the day.
  • Acknowledge there’s no “right way to cope: Some of us feel driven to work more and risk burning out. Others find it hard to keep up with shifting workloads or competing responsibilities. This pandemic isn’t a sprint and we’re all in different places. So show empathy.
  • Quit the comparisons: Everyone is affected by coronavirus in some way, whether you can see it on social media or not. So give yourself a break and don’t compare yourself to others.
  • Create a routine: For me, it’s coffee first thing and catching up on my emails. If you’re working from home, a familiar routine and dedicated workspace can go a long way in helping you get in a work mindset.
  • Talk to your manager: Clear expectations can help ease nerves. If you’re anxious about work, have a transparent conversation with your manager so you can align your expectations and priorities. Ask for help when you need it.
  • Take breaks: When you’re at home, it’s easy to work for hours at a time. However, you’ll be more productive when you make time for breaks. Find the cadence that works for you.
  • Set boundaries: Rather than working incessantly, find the work schedule that works for you and don’t overextend yourself. Some of us are most productive in the morning, while others get more done late at night.
  • Hang out on video chats: Your colleagues need interaction as well. It’s easy to engineer some creative collisions where you can talk about movies, trivia, or whatever’s on your mind. And remind yourself that we’re all in this together.
  • Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep is a primary risk factor in developing burnout, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. So make sure you’re getting enough sleep at night.
  • Take your vacation days: If you’re anxious, you might feel like you shouldn’t take any vacation. But don’t waste the vacation days that you’ve earned. Even if you’re just chilling out at home, it’s important to give yourself the time off you deserve so you can relax and recharge.

Feel the power of gratitude

We often give more weight to negative experiences than positive ones, especially when things are scary and feel out of our control. This is called “negativity bias.” In March, a study by mental health platform Total Brain found that its app users registered a significant increase in negativity bias, as well as a drop in emotional awareness.

How can we combat this? With the power of gratitude. You can use a gratitude journal to list out the things you’re thankful for. This might include things like:

  • The health of yourself and your family members
  • Emotional support from friends and family
  • Having a job, or the ability to supplement your income
  • Involvement in a church, interest group, or athletic organization
  • Working for a company that has your best interests at heart

Develop a daily routine of focusing on the positive aspects of your life. Take a look at your journal every morning, add to your list, and reflect on your entries.

Write down your worries—and possible solutions

You can also stay in a positive state of mind by focusing on the things you can control rather than what you can’t. If you find yourself excessively worried, try compartmentalizing your worry into a time block. Spend 20 minutes a day writing down your concerns, then brainstorm some solutions. If your worries are financial, for instance, do you need to meet with a financial advisor? Find some freelance work? Meet with your mentor? Or reach out to some contacts on LinkedIn?

Acknowledge others

We can also embrace positivity by acknowledging our colleagues; a simple note or affirmation at the right time can make all the difference to someone who might be having a bad day. At Element Three, we have what are called Awesome Blocks that we give to other E3ers who have gone above and beyond in exhibiting one of our company’s core values. And we also make it easy to send notes that celebrate milestones such as a birthday or work anniversary.

In pursuit of a new normal

As fall approaches, business leaders are pondering the right course for approaching some sort of normalcy in their organizations. And that’s going to mean different things to different companies. The PwC US CFO Pulse Study in June found that:

  • 54% of CFOs plan to make remote work a permanent option
  • 59% of CFOs worry about a second wave of infections affecting returns to work

The same study found that CFOs are very confident their company can both provide a safe working environment (71%) and meet customers’ safety expectations (80%).

Employees in those companies might not share that optimism.

A May poll of Americans by KRC Research found that employees are nervous and the path back to the office is unclear.

52% of employees were concerned about the future of their company and their job
45% feared their employer will bring people back to work before it is safe

Harvard Business Review recommends that employers manage these anxieties with three paradoxical strategies that are rooted in neuroscience and psychology.

Performance management: While leaders instinctively want to exert greater control, the solution is to grant workers greater flexibility.

Communication: Radical clarity is better than generous information sharing. Employees are trying to process a dense fog of information—and right now, clarity is king.

Leadership: To get tough, you must first be vulnerable. When leaders share their struggles, it results in deeper connection and better agility. While embracing vulnerability is difficult, HBR states that:

In what is arguably the most important lesson of anxiety research, we learn it is only in approaching what we have historically avoided that we’re able to find the very resilience we’ve been seeking.

Don’t let your well-being slip through the cracks.

When things are tough, sometimes we feel even greater responsibility. To make sure business keeps rolling on, we try to just power through anxiety and worry and be as productive as we can. That can work for a while, but only for so long.

Navigating the balance between productivity and self-care isn’t easy, especially when you feel like each moment you aren’t working puts your business at risk. But in the long run, the benefits of those extra few hours of work or that increased responsibility level are outweighed by the drawbacks of not taking care of yourself. Don’t forget to maintain yourself—you won’t regret the effort, and neither will your teammates.


Derek Smith Team Photo at Element Three

Derek Smith's skills as a reporter serve him well as a senior writer here at Element Three—and if you need a coach for your soccer team, he's got you covered. He's worked as a content strategist as well as a copywriter, so he's always thinking about the why behind every word and every piece of every campaign.