Coping with Chronic Uncertainty

Written by Jon Novello LMSW, ACSW, a Counselor with MSU’s Employee Assistance Program

Uncertainty. Along with pods, social distancing, and “you’re on mute,” uncertainty has become one of the buzzwords of this global pandemic. That’s for a good reason. We are living in a state of chronic and ongoing uncertainty. The reality of COVID-19 and our ongoing, evolving response to it continues to impact the everyday lives of every human on the planet. Many of us feel out of control in a world where our future is unclear and unpredictable.  

And we really don’t like to feel out of control. We find uncertainty hard to cope with even in the best of times. According to Dr. Christine Carter, a Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center and author of The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction, humans “crave information about the future in the same way we crave food, sex, and other primary rewards. Our brains perceive ambiguity as a threat, and they try to protect us by diminishing our ability to focus on anything other than creating certainty.”  

Think about that: our brains perceive ambiguity as a threat. When faced with a situation where we can’t know what will happen next or how things will turn out, we feel threatened, afraid of the unknown future. To deal with this fear, we begin to seek out more certainty to convince ourselves that things will be ok. We look for answers, information, reassurance from some external force that can tell us that things will work out so that we can feel better. 

That’s what many of us are looking for right now: an answer to make us feel better about the pandemic. An example of this is how frustrated many people feel about the science of COVID-19. To satisfy our feelings of insecurity in so much uncertainty, we want science to be clear and definitive — to tell us how long this will last, what we need to do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, and when exactly a vaccine will be available so that things can “go back to normal.” But science is ever- evolving, and new information gained sometimes means that we have to adjust our understanding of reality. If we look for definitive answers when we are still researching the problem, we may end up feeling overwhelmed and hopeless.  

As Dr. Carter points out, “sometimes — maybe always — it’s more effective not to attempt to create certainty.” Seeking more certainty when we are surrounded by so much unknown leads us to constantly try to control that which we can’t control, which results in more anxiety, not less. Instead, what tends to help us get through moments like this is learning to live with ambiguity. 

To that end, here are six strategies to help you navigate a world that is so uncertain. 

  1. Make your health a priority. Invest in your wellbeing right now. It’s easy to focus our attention and care on other people, especially those of us who are caregivers and fixers. But, that attention to others still costs us, in energy and resources. If we aren’t taking care of ourselves, then we run out of juice at some point, and that can lead to more intense feelings of anxiety and depression. 

    Make sure that you’re getting enough sleep (or at least rest). Eat well to nourish your body. Spend time with your friends in creative ways. Play, read, listen, dance, sing, run, hug, love. These things fill us up and rejuvenate us, but they are easy to neglect.
     
  2. Exhibit compassion, patience, and grace. Many people are struggling right now, and that emotional toll can sometimes play out in how they interact with you. You may notice that some of your coworkers have shorter fuses than they might typically have. An employee at a local business you like may not be as attentive to you while providing you service. This is normal during a time like this.

    It is important to try to interact with others from a position of empathy and curiosity. If someone is having a hard time, rather than complain about them, try to wonder what might be going on in their lives that is making it hard for them to be pleasant. That doesn’t mean that you have to tolerate bad behavior. There are times when we need to set clear limits with others. But we can do that from a position of compassion and grace. 
      
  3. Explore the concept of acceptance. This can be tricky. This doesn’t mean to simply resign yourself to the bad stuff. Rather, acceptance allows us to look at the world as it is, rather than as we wish it would be. When we focus on what we’d rather see, we observe the world from a state of resistance, where our attention stays solely on what’s wrong and why it shouldn’t be this way. It might be easy for me to spend hours dwelling on why people aren’t wearing masks properly in downtown East Lansing. While I might be able to come up with countless reasons that prove that my thoughts are correct, this doesn’t do anything to change those people’s behavior, nor does it stop the spread of COVID-19. Rather, it keeps me in a position of anger and hopelessness, which affects only me. 

    Acceptance, on the other hand, allows me to approach the problem from a place of openness, curiosity, and creativity. Given that people are not wearing masks, and given that I am concerned about the spread of this disease, what can I do about it at this moment? Acceptance points our attention in a specific direction, toward what is possible, rather than what is not working.
     
  4. Notice what you can control, and work to accept what you can’t. Here’s something that we know to be true: we tend to do worse psychologically when we focus our attention on things that we can’t control; and we tend to do better when our attention is focused on things we can control. That seems like an easy concept to understand, but it’s hard to do sometimes. Dwelling on those things that are out of our control can be so compelling. But it can lead us to feeling overwhelmed and out of control. Plus, the reality is that we have no control over most of the world around us. 

    When we focus on what we can control, it allows us to feel more in control. I can’t control who wears masks and who doesn’t, but I can control what I choose to do when I walk downtown. I can’t control whether someone is snippy with me at work, but I can control how I respond to that person. I can’t control whether people share the same political view as me, but I can control how I show up and whether I vote. I can’t directly control whether oppression or injustice is happening, but I can control how I stand up to it. We can control how much we are doing to take care of our minds, spirits, and bodies.
     
  5. Be more present. “The opposite of uncertainty is not certainty; it’s presence.” When we try to create more certainty, we try to control the future. We are trying to make things work out in the way that we’d prefer. But, again, we typically have so little control of most things that it can lead to feelings of anxiety and frustration. Rather than trying to seek more certainty, we could instead focus on the present, which is the only place where we have control. 

    Remember that we do better when we feel in control. When your brain slips into imagining a scary and unknown future, bring your attention to your breath. From there, check in with yourself, asking what you need right now to feel ok. What is happening right now? What is possible right now? What do I need right now?
     
  6. If you need help with any of this, get help. If you are struggling and wondering if you need assistance, reach out and ask for help. There are plenty of resources available to you. As an MSU employee, you have access to six sessions of free, confidential counseling through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). For people that need more than six visits, the EAP will be able to provide you with referrals to local therapists that are in- network with your insurance plan. In addition, there are many other resources available through MSU, and in the larger community. Feel free to look over this guide for more information about what resources are available to you. 

If you would like to learn more about EAP services or would like to get in touch with a member of the team, please call 517.355.4506, send an email to eap@msu.edu or visit eap.msu.edu.

Sources

Carter, C. (2020). The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.

Compassionate Leadership: Awareness of Mental Health Needs as the Pandemic Continues

Written by Jennie Yelvington, MSW, ACSW, Program Manager, MSU HR Organization & Professional Development

The last few months have been a long haul, and from all indications, it will still be quite some time before the COVID-19 crisis is behind us. Information changes daily, forcing us to shift gears quickly and adjust plans in virtually every role we have — be it employee, leader, parent, caretaker, or even citizen given our current sociopolitical landscape. As time goes on, the continually shifting ground can be disorienting, and emotional overload can impact our mental health. It is not uncommon for people to feel motivated and focused one day (or week) and then burned out and struggling the next. For those experiencing depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions pre-COVID — perhaps silently — the impact may be even more severe. 

In addition, “employees who have had to adjust to new vulnerabilities, uncertainties, and business practices from COVID-19 are now being re-traumatized through repeated exposure to images and threats of violence. For some, this moment is a wakeup call to make important and necessary changes, but for many, there is a cumulative deep emotional overload and exhaustion. Coping with these two huge social forces in the context of social distancing and greater financial uncertainty leaves people feeling frightened.” (Goodson, 2020) What can leaders do to support their team members and colleagues, while attempting to navigate this terrain? Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Commit to your own self-care and encourage your staff to do the same. If you don’t take the time and effort for self-care, you will not be able to do the other items on this list effectively. Here’s the rundown:  
    • Get enough sleep and keep a consistent schedule as much as possible.  
    • Take breaks. Get outside, go for a walk, meditate, get away from your screens even if it’s just for a few minutes. 
    • Move. Do something that you enjoy to get some exercise. Walking, yoga, running, strength training, golfing, dancing, whatever you like.  
    • Connect. We all have an innate need to connect with others. Suggestions: call that friend who makes you laugh, reach out to brighten someone’s day, do something fun with your family (instead of just the to-do list), or meet with a colleague for a socially distanced, outdoor coffee hour. 
    • Take time off as you are able. Even a long weekend or a few hours here and there to get away from work — and social media — can be rejuvenating. 
  2. Stay aware. If you notice that a staff member or colleague shifts from being engaged and productive to detached or agitated, check-in. Not to judge or diagnose, but to see how they are and listen. 
  3. Show compassion and reassurance. Normalize these ups and downs and the impact on everyone’s psyche — though, it may look somewhat different from person to person. Demonstrate empathy and allow for flexibility when possible as people try to meet the demands of caretaking, financial struggles, and more. 
  4. Provide structure and continuity where possible. Talk about what isn’t changing, have project plans so that expectations are clear, keep people briefed on the latest information as you become aware, focus on vision, values, and mission as driving factors regardless of other changes. 
  5. Stay realistic while maintaining some base expectations. Productivity may not be as high or consistent as it was pre-pandemic. There may be points of higher output and other times when family or emotional demands take a toll. Communication is key. What are the priority items that must be completed on time? Where can there be flexibility? How do you prefer people communicate with you if a deadline is at risk?  
  6. Support skill-building. Most employees (and likely you, too) have needed to do their jobs in new ways to meet current needs. Some have put off this learning, hoping that they could ride it out until this situation passes. That is no longer an option. Covering for not having the skills to do the work needed adds to the stress. Do skills inventories with staff to see what areas to strengthen to do the work at hand in this environment. Support people in finding the skill-building opportunities they need and follow up to make sure they’ve followed through and found it helpful. Call MSU HR, Organization & Professional Development and/or Academic Advancement Network for guidance or read some of these questions to help assess learning needs. 
  7. Communicate openly, honoring what is difficult while staying optimistic about the future. Share information you can promptly. If you are having a particularly bad day, it is probably best not to share all your worst thoughts with your staff. Talk to a trusted friend to get perspective first. As new announcements come out, check in with staff to see what their reactions are, what questions they have and discuss how the news could impact them. 
  8. Provide referrals. If you notice that people are struggling, be sure to remind them of the resources available.  

“Leaders set the tone and culture of organizations. They should remind people to take care of themselves and share what they are doing to stay healthy and well. This may mean leaders must get outside their comfort zone. Employees are likely to be reassured by the willingness of leaders to show vulnerability and share how they are coping. This conveys to employees that they are not alone in what they are feeling and experiencing. Ideally, it communicates we are in this together and you are supported. Also, it demonstrates the organization’s commitment to transparency and continuous communication.” (American Psychiatric Association, 2020)  

So grant yourself and others some grace as we move through this imperfectly. Take time to relax and connect with others to further resiliency, set realistic goals and give yourself credit for all that you’ve managed thus far in a challenging situation. Take care, Spartans. Together we can do this. 

Sources:

Scott Goodson (2020, June 25). How to Lead Through Employee Mental Health Issues During Covid. Retrieved August 19, 2020, from https://www.inc.com/scott-goodson-chip-walker/how-to-lead-through-employee-mental-health-issues-during-covid.html

Employee Mental Health & Well-being During & Beyond COVID-19. (n.d.). Retrieved August 19, 2020, from http://www.workplacementalhealth.org/Employer-Resources/Employee-Mental-Health-Well-being-During-Beyon

Lately, Have You Felt Distracted, Unfocused, Sad, Angry, Overwhelmed or Confused?

This is a guest post written by Jonathon Novello, MSU Health4U consultant and EAP counselor.

Over the last month, mental health providers have seen an increase in clients with anxieties related to current challenges and uncertainties caused by the worldwide pandemic. They seek answers to big questions about their health, families, jobs, finances, and relationships. They describe feeling distracted, unfocused, sad, angry, overwhelmed, and confused. Many are feeling something unexpected, a feeling that they may not be able to immediately identify.

That feeling is grief.

Grief is an emotion we typically associate with death, but we can feel grief even when we haven’t lost someone close to us. In fact, grief has to do with how we adjust to any loss; and right now, we are surrounded by it. Think about the losses you’ve experienced recently and see if they are similar to what other Spartans have endured, such as loss of:

  • Health
  • Certainty and predictability
  • A clear sense of the future
  • Vacations and other experiences
  • Time with extended family and friends
  • Variety and freedom
  • Comfort, safety and security

When humans experience loss we feel grief. Grief is the process of moving from resistance of that loss to acceptance. We don’t want to lose stability, time with our parents, or the opportunity to watch our daughter’s senior soccer season, so our brain resists that loss. We struggle with it and experience a whole series of emotions as we sort out what this loss means to us.

Here’s the thing about grief: there are no short-cuts. Grief is a process that we must move through in order to accept and live with our new reality. The grief process is often inconvenient, and at times frustratingly slow. While we are grieving, our brains are being taxed with a whole host of complicated feelings, from anger, to sorrow, to bargaining, to denial. These feelings come and go and are not linear. We might feel fine one morning, and then something happens around noon and we start to feel angry, and then by dinnertime we are suddenly weepy and sad. Or, we may think we’ve left anger and moved onto sorrow, only to feel anger well up again.

It is very common for people who are struggling with grief to have difficulty concentrating, and many find it much harder to focus on work, other responsibilities, or even pastimes that normally reduce their stress. That is normal and expected.

Have you felt like that at some point in the past several weeks? Maybe you’ve been unfocused this week or more easily distracted. Maybe you’ve been feeling unmoored and “blue.” You may have noticed some days your emotions feel like they are right under the surface, ready to burst through if someone says just the wrong thing, or you drop one more Zoom call.

We are all dealing with loss and knowing this might help us have compassion for ourselves, as well as others. You are not alone in this. Remember that grief is a process. We know that Spartans Will move through this, but at our own pace and in our own time. Be patient with yourselves and with each other and try not to rush the process.

Resources to Help You and Your Family

If you or a family member would like to talk to someone, remember The Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a confidential counseling service provided at no cost to MSU faculty, staff, retirees, graduate student employees and their benefit-eligible family members. During this period of physical distancing, EAP counselors are now exclusively offering Telehealth videoconferencing, which is an encrypted platform that is completely confidential and HIPAA compliant. Learn how to make an appointment.

Additionally, MSU Health4U has a variety of resources on their website that may be useful, including the following:

Lastly, MSU employees who are enrolled in an MSU health plan have access to Teladoc, which offers behavioral health (depression, anxiety, grief counseling, addiction, etc.) services via web, phone or app for members and their dependents who are age 18+. Learn more about Teladoc.

Individual and Team Resources in elevateU

Looking for ways to grow and develop your team while helping everyone stay connected during this time? elevateU has online options available for both individual and team development, including Team Talks, Monthly Featured Topics and Desktop/Productivity Tools. Learn more about how these resources can help you and your team:

Team Talks

Team Talks offer a series of guides and highlighted short videos designed to help drive self-reflection and discussion. Each Team Talk guide has three sections to encourage self-reflection, discussion points for a team, and some suggestions for how to implement ideas to action individually and as a team.

Access Team Talks directly here.

How to Use:

  • Once at the Team Talks section, choose a topic from the categories on the left. Go to the Custom tab to find the related guide. Review the the guide and the highlighted video linked to on the left side of the guide.
  • Individual Activity: view the brief video and consider the Self-Reflection questions included in the Team Talk guide.
  • Team Activity: watch the video before a meeting and/or as a team during a virtual meeting and use the Team Talk questions as a guide for discussion. The Ideas for Action section provides some considerations for putting ideas into actionable behaviors, for both individuals and entire teams. Assign topics to team members to lead the discussion to further enhance collaboration. Revisit the topic in the next team meeting by asking how employees were able to apply what they learned.

Monthly Featured Topics

Monthly Featured Topics are a curated list of resources – such as short videos, courses, book summaries, and more – around a specific skill or topic. New topics are rolled out the first week of each month and the previous month’s topics are also available. April’s topic is Time Management – be sure to check out these timely resources.

Access Monthly Featured Topics directly here.

How to Use:

  • We recommend a 30-minute online course “The Art of Staying Focused,” which covers relevant segments such as “Blocking Out Distractions” and “Adjusting Your Focus When Circumstances Change.” 
  • Also consider one of the highlighted book summaries, The Inefficiency Assassin: Time Management Tactics for Working Smarter, Not Longer,” which provides a brief overview. The whole book is available in elevateU for free as well.
  • Team Activity: have team members view the resources and prepare to engage in a discussion as a team around the subject—interesting thoughts and ideas, ways to apply the concepts, etc. Further enhance collaboration by assigning a monthly topic to one or more team members to research, discuss and share with the rest of the team during a regularly scheduled team meeting.

Desktop and Productivity Tools

The Desktop and Productivity Tools section highlights a few options from the vast library of other desktop, IT, and productivity-related assets and are geared to a variety of skill levels. Content is organized by a specific tool (e.g., Teams Office 365, Excel, Word, OneNote).

Access Desktop and Productivity Tools directly here.

How to Use:

  • Individual Activity: Have you always wanted to learn how to utilize OneNote better or how to create masterful charts in Excel? Now is the time to tackle those topics individually, especially for any items included in your annual performance goals. 
  • Team Activity: Consider assigning one or more team members to learn more about a specific tool and do a “teach-back” for the rest of the team. Are there particular tools that could benefit your team now or help prepare the team for an upcoming project? This strategy creates an excellent framework for collaboration and connection outside the regular virtual team setting, boosts communication and presentation skills, and also creates a network of “experts” on your team for specific tools.

Have questions or want to discuss additional options?  Contact Organization and Professional Development at prodev@hr.msu.edu.

Leading with Emotional Intelligence: It’s more important now than ever

This is a guest post written by Jennie Yelvington, Program Manager, HR Organization and Professional Development

In these uncertain times, many are struggling to find their footing and feel confident in the new normal. Demonstrating compassion and self-awareness, and effectively navigating emotions (yours and others) are priority skills for leaders at this unique time. It is also important to remember that anyone can be a leader regardless of title, and the current situation provides an opportunity to demonstrate just that.

In the Daniel Goleman book Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence, we learn that “while IQ and technical skills may help you get a foot in the leadership door, it’s emotional intelligence (EQ) that is often the stronger predictor of exceptional leadership. Goleman defines emotional intelligence as a set of skills that enables us to understand emotions—what they are, what they mean, and how they can affect others.”

Fortunately, Emotional Intelligence is something that can be learned, and we have many resources in elevateU to help you do just that, including the following:

  • To get a basic understanding of emotional intelligence, you can view the following brief videos from author Travis Bradberry: Emotional Intelligence Defined and Emotional Intelligence can be Learned
  • In the course Leveraging Emotional Intelligence you’ll learn from bestselling author Marcus Buckingham and others about the components of EQ, why it is particularly important for leaders, and how to build related competencies.
  • The Harvard Business Review audio book Power & Impact: Emotional Intelligence explains “how wielding power affects your emotions and decision making and helps you avoid the traps that lead to negative consequences. With the latest psychological research and practical advice from leading experts, you’ll learn how to use soft power to persuade others, fix unhealthy power dynamics in your team, use compassion to connect better with others, and remain ethical in your choices and actions.”
  • If you like learning with more of a gaming component, check out the Challenge Series exercise Emotional Intelligence at Work. You will be placed in the role of product manager and will need to make choices as to how to respond to different scenarios.
  • Last but not least, don’t miss the Live Event offered through elevateU on Thursday, April 23rd, titled The Power of Insight: How Self-Awareness Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life. Organizational Psychologist and best-selling author Tasha Eurich, whose research reveals that when leaders make the brave decision to improve their self-awareness, they become empowered to bust through barriers, make better decisions, and engage and motivate their teams.

These are just a few of the options available on this topic through elevateU. To see a more complete list, type “emotional intelligence” in the search bar on the home page.

Whether you are in a formal leadership role, aspire to be, or are interested in leading from wherever you work, strengthening your emotional intelligence can boost your career, facilitate team functioning, and strengthen the organization.

Happy National Online Learning Day!

September 15 is National Online Learning Day! Online learning provides convenience, flexibility, and personalization for all learners. Did you know MSU offers FREE online learning opportunities for all faculty and staff? Get access to online resources including books, videos, courses, and more via elevateU. 

Access elevateU here or log into EBS and look for the “elevateU” tile under the “My Career & Training” tab. You can access elevateU from your computer or through the Skillsoft Learning App for Android and iOS devices.  

There are programs that cover leadership, IT & desktop, business, finance, human resources, change management, project management, interpersonal skills and so much more. Resources are available in a variety of formats: 

  • Video-based and interactive courses 
  • Videos 
  • Books 
  • Resources to prepare for various professional certifications 

Watch the following video for a general overview of the resources available to you and how to access them:

Need help navigating elevateU? Click here for an additional video on how to use the search function and navigate through the resources available. 

Utilize the resources as reference tools to help answer your day-to-day job questions or as part of your ongoing personal and professional development. Many of the courses are even approved for Continuing Education credits! Remember, all courses are available to current staff and faculty at no charge.  

Happy National Online Learning Day!