Walking The Pandemic Path Together
Let me be honest. When we first heard the Covid-19 order from our local government telling us to “stay home and stay safe,” the introvert in me was a little relieved. All of my employees at our Birkman headquarters were basking in the after-glow of hosting a major conference at the very end of February, then immediately jumping into the exciting but hard work of packing up to relocate our entire home office for the first time in 34 years.
On my Birkman Signature report, I have very high literary interests, so I silently welcomed the idea of two or three weeks to quietly sequester and enjoy some of the books I’d been planning to read for several years. After all, I expected that we would return to business as usual in a month or so. That was the middle of March…
Now it’s July. As we know, this pandemic has been a tsunami. It hit with an alarming magnitude that no one saw coming and, to this day, continues to slam us in unexpected ways. Having been CEO since 2002, we’ve weathered ups and downs, but never dealt with anything like Covid-19, a vexing and insidious villain that has impacted the entire world. Now, more than four months into the pandemic with no “back to normal” in sight, you would think I would be used to this by now. And yet, I find myself having to work harder than ever to tamp down my frustration and levels of stress.
As I confess this, I count myself among the most fortunate. When it comes to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, I am lucky to have all my basic needs met. But it’s still hard. It is feeling even harder as a leader to be patient and remain upbeat. A few of my 2 AM anxieties include: How are our Birkman employees doing out there? Maybe they’re okay, but how would I really know? How can I help them cope with their homebound challenges? Are they able to stay productive and connected day after day when we only see them on screens? What can I do to uphold the cheerful and cohesive office culture we used to enjoy? How can I help my team stabilize or continue to grow our nearly 70-year-old company? In short, and I know I am not alone in this: How do we lead effectively in such anxiety-riddled days?
I admit to spending the first weeks of the pandemic in varying degrees of shock. I was looking out for my company, but over the many weeks, it became overwhelming as health concerns became economic concerns with skyrocketing unemployment and intense racial unrest. While there is a logical chain of events in these issues, my goal is to confine my worries to the things I can control. My first responsibility is to uphold the Birkman legacy. I must manage my angst to take better care of Birkman, its people, and our clients we serve.
We are all human, so there is no perfect. Here are some prescriptive suggestions I can share for calming those pesky, daily levels of anxiety. I believe doing any one of these things can help us navigate these scary and uncharted days ahead of us. We have now realized that fighting COVID will be a process and a journey, but we can walk it together and make it through.
1. Now is not forever.
As I was growing up, whenever I started to feel down or discouraged, my dad would remind me it was temporary. He’d say, “However sad you’re feeling in this moment, it won’t feel like this forever. Tomorrow will be a brighter day.” He’d encourage me not to feel stuck in what troubled me that day, reminding me that, “There will always be a way forward, and there is always hope.”
What I know today is that I can make a conscious choice to separate worry from concern. Concern means we have the power to do something about it.
2. Decide to be an optimist.
Even in the days when things have felt bleak, I have always been a firm believer in the “glass half full” mindset. This said, there have been plenty of times I had to remind myself to actively practice gratitude, looking at what we can do, what we have, and all the opportunities that are going well. There are always going to be valuable lessons gleaned and plenty of blessings to be counted even in the darkest times. I can decide to take things one day at a time and make it a habit to choose optimism over fear, act on what I can still control, and work to determine what needs to happen next. My daily affirmation is to remind myself that I will be okay and breathe. I have no idea how long this will last, but it can never end soon enough. However, a decision to choose optimism becomes a way of taking action—a kind of positive doing.
3. Live fully for today and include self-care.
In these taxing and unsettling times, it’s natural to feel disoriented. This year we have seen the lives of all of our families and friends be upended. We are all actively grieving the loss of celebrations, graduations, vacations, weddings, every kind of social event—the list goes on and is overwhelming. But, as we’re forced to accept the things we cannot change, there is an urgent need to pay attention to the things that have the power to restore our energies and recharge us.
One easy way to recharge is to look at your top interests in your Birkman report. Focus on one of the interests that bring you joy, is therapeutic, and renews energy a few minutes each day. My four highest Birkman Interests are Music, Literary, Social Service, and Artistic. When COVID’s first dark clouds rolled over us, I found solace to read some excellent books. I also found satisfaction in helping decorate the spacious offices we’d just moved to right before the pandemic struck. I could finally find time to play piano, something I’d mostly neglected over recent years when I was “too busy” to practice. And lastly, I wanted The Birkman Method to continue to help people, whether it was providing career guidance, ways to manage stress, or learning how to keep newly remote teams productive and engaged. Our training department was able to pivot to virtual training rapidly to continue helping people. As much as I missed meeting our trainees in person, I am intensely grateful we could offer an alternative. It was reassuring to watch the trainees interact with their virtual trainers on Zoom and see their excitement as they became fully Birkman-certified with the only safe option available. We were also able to offer discounts on some of our highly-rated reports: careertyping, Stress Management, Basics, and Signature. I’m tremendously grateful Birkman can help during these unprecedented times.
4. Nurture healthy relationships and keep your close friends close.
Want to give yourself a stronger immune system? It has now been scientifically proven that strong and loyal relationships do more to boost our immune systems than exercise and nutrition. Humans are hard-wired to connect with others (release oxytocin), so nothing is as cruel as isolation. Feelings of loneliness have been documented to be worse than smoking multiple packs of cigarettes a day. Social isolation is more than painful; it can be toxic.
The same week we went into lock-down, Forbes released my newest book, which cites the critical importance of the need we all share for social connection and healthy supportive relationships. In my book, “Creatures of Contact,” I make a case for how vital these appreciative human relationships are to our well-being and ultimate survival.
As we work together to get through this pandemic, we need to pay attention to how we collaborate and get along with others. Even if we are confined to FaceTime or Zoom, our powerful need for human connection does not go away. As we have seen over the past months, the human spirit can be amazingly inventive in finding ways to connect with other humans. In whatever ways we manage to pull it off, the desire to be socially connected to others is non-negotiable and profound. Be sure to reach out to your close friends and family, as technology allows us to, thankfully.
Anxiety is a Signal to Change, Take Action, and Grow
I have been amazed by the ingenious and innovative ways people across the globe have managed to deal with and overcome the restrictions of Coronavirus. I wish I knew when this would end, but one thing I can say for sure is that the ability of humans to pull together and achieve miraculous things is impressive. We do know this: however long it takes, the crisis of COVID will eventually end. Until then and while this novel virus persists, let’s focus on compassion and gratitude---the most powerful antidotes we have to fight fear and anxiety. Hopefully, as citizens of the world, we will all discover new ways to pull together to get through this because, after all, now is not…and never will be, forever.
About the Author | Sharon Birkman
Sharon Birkman began her role as Birkman International’s President and CEO in 2002, becoming Chairman in 2022. As the daughter of company founder and influential industrial-organizational psychologist, Dr. Roger W. Birkman, Sharon cultivated her deep expertise in human perception and organizational behavior through her lifelong interest in The Birkman Method. Before succeeding Dr. Birkman as CEO, Sharon served in several roles including VP Corporate Relations, Training, and Career Coaching. Sharon’s leadership has been instrumental ushering in a new era of product development, technology, and training initiatives during a time of unprecedented growth. In this period, Sharon and the business have been recognized with a multitude of awards. These include EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016, the Women President’s Organization’s Mary Lehman MacLachlan Award for Economic Empowerment in 2017, Houston’s Best and Brightest Places to Work For from 2014-2019, National Best and Brightest Places to Work For (2014-2018), the Houston Business Journal’s Women Who Mean Business Award in 2017 and 2018, and as a Houston Power 50 Woman Leader in 2018.