When my sister and I were in college, my parents had a 3-day rule, as in you have to find a way to check-in by the third day. They wanted to hear our voices and know we were OK. Phone calls were harder back then too – we did not have smart phones or Zoom. Often the calls were from pay phones in dorm hallways with little privacy, but they got the job done. Today, in the midst of this pandemic, my husband has a similar directive for each of his managers: you need to lay eyes on your team members (virtually) at least twice a week. Please see with your own eyes that they are doing OK, or not.
Things are tough right now. Many people are struggling and suffering physically and psychologically. It’s easy to get weighed down by what we have lost and what we stand to lose. But, as President Kennedy once said: “In a crisis, be aware of the danger — but recognize the opportunity.” Without undermining the very real dangers that we face – let’s also ask where are the opportunities to connect and thrive?
What are the risks?
An April Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows a majority of Americans say that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health. Two recent Gallup polls also reported an uptick in mental health concerns for both adults and children. Calls to crisis hotlines have surged to unprecedented levels nationwide. If past economic downturns are any indication, high levels of unemployment and a recession will increase the number of people experiencing depression and anxiety.
Mental health experts are justifiably worried. The COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic crisis, have the potential to yield a devastating psychological toll.
Lawyers are disproportionately affected by substance use and mental health concerns when compared with the general population. Several recent snapshot polls suggest an uptick in anxiety in a profession already disproportionately burdened.
So, What are the Opportunities?
There is reason for hope buried in the data — and even more good news in the science of human flourishing.
The Gallup polling organization has consistently tracked the way Americans feel about the COVID-19 pandemic as well as their behavior. While many Americans report increased levels of stress and anxiety, lower levels of physical activity, and worse eating habits, those changes are not true across the board and there are positive indicators.
Overall, more people report that their personal relationships have gotten better rather than worse. Over the course of the last few months, a majority (moving from 61 percent in mid-march to 70% in mid-June) report that they feel enjoyment a lot of the day compared to a decreasing number who report that they feel worry a lot of the day (moving from 58% to 47%) during the same period. As of mid-June, 73% said they experience happiness a lot of the day, while only 22% said they experienced loneliness a lot of the day and 20% depression)
Similarly, recent polls of the legal profession found that while some lawyers are reporting higher levels of anxiety due to a wide variety of pandemic-related factors, many are also acknowledging the benefits of found time in the absence of commuting and office obligations. In an Association of Corporate Counsel poll, the vast majority report feeling generally “good.”
So, what can we do to help our colleagues and ourselves connect with one another, build positive relationships, and generally promote the good?
Promote the Good
On a positive note, humans are resilient even in the face of the worst crises. Thriving in the face of terrible circumstances is the norm, not the exception. So, what can we do to connect and support one another in this WFH world?
No. 1: Make a 3-day Rule
Check-in with your colleagues, employees, and maybe even family members on a schedule. Right now, the check-in is going to be virtual. Virtual is fine. Virtual still allows you to look at people and ask them how they are doing and ask yourself if they seem OK.
No. 2: Show people how to gather and connect in new ways.
Connection and gathering is important and showing that virtual gathering can be meaningful comes from the top. One of my clients, a recruiting director at a large law firm, lamented to me last week that she could not get her firm’s attorneys to stop apologizing to summer associates about the virtual program (and lack of in-person program). Their assumption was that the virtual program was unappealing, instead of focusing on what was gained: a unified program where the entire world-wide summer class was learning together and meeting in a way they would not have done in prior years. Use your own words and language to emphasize that virtual programs have value.
No. 3: Plan and Organize Your Virtual Gatherings
The wonderful thing about virtual programs and social events is that they are cheap compared to in-person events. You don’t have to find a space or provide food and drinks. You do, however, have to plan. Whether you are hosting a practice group lunch, a firm-wide cocktail hour, a fitness class, a mindfulness check-in, or a skills training, planning is key. You’ll want your event to: (1) allow participants to interact; (2) be shorter than an in-person event; (3) have a host to keep things organized and moving along; and (4) utilize interactive technology like polling and games to keep people interested.