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What happens when our 'surge capacity' is depleted at work

Shot of a young businesswoman looking stressed out while working in an office
Work-related stress is particularly prevalent amid the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Getty

You’re usually pretty good at handling stress at work, but things seem overwhelming at the moment. Your inbox — which you are normally on top of — is bursting with unread and unanswered emails, and you keep finding yourself missing deadlines. Everytime your boss messages you, you feel like flinging your laptop out of the window.

Everyone experiences stress at work, but it is particularly prevalent now. Unsurprisingly, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused levels of anxiety to spike — which is affecting all aspects of our lives, from our health to relationships and our work. And for many people, it is feeling increasingly more difficult as time goes on.

“It's been nearly several months since our worlds were turned upside down and changed in ways we could never have imagined,” says Kirsty Lilley, a mental health specialist at the wellbeing charity CABA. “Many of us have had to redesign the way we live our lives and manage complex personal and work situations.

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“In those early months, we were likely to be drawing on our ‘surge capacity’ to operate, as Anne Masten, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, calls it.”

Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.

“Natural disasters, however, occur over a short period, even if recovery is long,” Lilley says. “Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely. When surge capacity is depleted, it has to be renewed. But what happens when you struggle to renew it because the emergency phase has now become chronic?”

We have no real idea when — or if — things will return to how they were pre-COVID, or what the working environment will look like in the future. All this uncertainty, alongside the loss of loved ones, job insecurity and the growing second wave of infections, is chipping away at our resilience and ability to cope. Essentially, it’s hard to keep going when things seem never-ending.

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Experiment with “both-and” thinking

“When stress arises, we can develop very binary, black and white thinking habits which can make it more challenging to be flexible and creative in terms of how we might cope with the difficulties we face,” Lilly says. “If we aim to stay completely rational when all around us feels irrational we might stress ourselves out more.”

To combat this, you could try a concept called “both-and” thinking which requires us to embrace a bit of what we might feel is irrational.

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“On a personal level it might look like, ‘I am a very competent person and have days when I feel demotivated and am unsure how to move forward’. How we face the pandemic reality will help us cope more,” she adds.

Give yourself a break

It goes without saying that things are more difficult at the moment. Even if your day-to-day is still relatively normal, the constant barrage of bad news is enough to increase our stress levels.

It can be easier said than done to take more breaks, particularly if you are worried about the future of your job. But you are far more likely to be engaged and productive if you are more relaxed.

“We have to expect less of ourselves, and we have to replenish more,” Lilley says. “We might see this as a period of self-discovery: Where do I get my energy? What kind of rest and recovery time do I need?

“Many of these elements will have changed, and it may take some reflection time and space to find out how the rhythms of life have altered and what you need right now and moving forward.”

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Build a “resilience bank account”

Having a good support network is one of the most important ways to build your resilience in times of crisis. Keep in touch with family, friends and colleagues and make sure you don’t keep stress pent up inside. It’s likely that other people are feeling the same, too.

Self-care is key, so taking time off from work when things seem overwhelming is important. “The idea of a ‘resilience bank account’ is gradually building into your life regular practices that promote resilience and provide a fallback when life gets difficult,” Lilley says. “The areas that are specifically important are sleep, nutrition, exercise, meditation, self-compassion, gratitude, connection, and saying no and maintaining personal and professional boundaries.”