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Thriving through the ongoing pandemic

As the pandemic moves into year two, would you say that, overall, you are thriving, barely surviving or hanging in there, but feeling worn down or worn out some days?

Is thriving even possible in the midst of this period of adversity, when life has been so disrupted by a persistent and mighty virus, we’ve experienced heartache and loss, and we're worried about our own futures and the future of our democracy in the US?

I believe that we can thrive, especially when we do so together. The individuals who will look back when the pandemic is finally over and feel they did more than just make it through will have several attributes in common.

I’m framing each attribute as a call to action starting with the verb “stay” for a reason. Back when the first positive cases of COVID-19 were identified in the US and “hot spots” emerged on the West Coast and East Coast, concern was mixed with hope that protective measures being adopted would successfully limit the spread of the coronavirus. We rallied around the need to “flatten the curve." We said: "The office is closed and everyone will be working from home for the next several weeks? OK, we can do this. It’s not ideal, and it’s so sudden, but we’ll figure it out."

Despite rosy predictions espoused by some leaders about how quickly we could return to the daily lives we were used to, weeks extended to months and entire seasons as the virus extended its reach across the globe and into communities throughout the entire US. In March 2020, we had hoped this race to extinguish the coronavirus would be a short-distance sprint, yet it has become a long-distance marathon. “Stay” is a reminder to recalibrate your mindset about where the finish line is and pace yourself to go the distance.

At the time of this writing, two factors make it likely that the pandemic will go on through most, if not all, of 2021. First, several variants of the coronavirus have been discovered, which could reduce the efficacy of the new COVID-19 vaccines being produced. Practically, this means the percentage of the world’s population that will need to be vaccinated or develop natural immunity in order to halt the pandemic will increase from 70% to somewhere in the range of 80-85%. Furthermore, the longer the pandemic goes on, the greater the probability new variants develop that  may reduce the efficacy of current vaccines.

The second factor presents a serious challenge: A sizable number of individuals are skeptical that the recently developed vaccines are safe, so they are either unwilling to get vaccinated at all or they are taking a wait-and-see approach. According to Kaiser Family Foundation, 20% of US adults surveyed do not intend to get vaccinated or will only get vaccinated if it’s required. This resistance will make it more difficult to vaccinate such a high percentage of the population.

I wish it were not so, but it may take a personal encounter with the virus -- the loss of a family member, friend or acquaintance to COVID-19, or witnessing the long-term negative health consequences that some people are experiencing -- before people change their minds about getting vaccinated or complying with public health measures of mask-wearing, hand washing and social distancing.

The bottom line is that it’s going to take some time to stop the pandemic. We can see a distant light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still in the tunnel and have a ways to go before we arrive at the open air and light again.

With all of this in mind, what can we learn about how to thrive through the pandemic?

Stay realistically optimistic

Our mindset fuels our actions. You’ve likely witnessed how differently a person with a “glass half full” perspective approaches an issue than a member of the same team who is a “glass half empty” type. Thrivers through the pandemic will maintain a realistic sense of optimism and communicate their rationale to others whom they influence. Their optimism is not wishful thinking and pie in the sky; it’s grounded and based on reputable information. Thrivers keep the expectation of a brighter future in front of people while not minimizing the sobering time we are in.

Pfizer/BioNtech and Moderna have developed vaccines that have been shown to be 95% effective in protecting people from COVID-19, and those vaccines are currently being administered in the US and other nations. They developed these vaccines, put them through stages of testing, obtained approval for use, and began manufacturing millions of doses in less than one year.

As of Feb. 1, there are several other vaccines in limited use outside of the U.S. (a vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, for example, is being administered in the UK) as well as 20 additional vaccines in the approval process or in late-stage, large-scale trials, including one developed by Johnson & Johnson. Variants of the virus have and will continue to emerge, but so far it looks like some of the available vaccines will still provide relatively high levels of protection from these variants of COVID-19.

What the biomedical community has done is astounding considering previously it took four years, best case, to develop a vaccine.

This is very good news that we should be encouraged by. The more people who are vaccinated, the fewer people the virus can infect, the fewer people those who are infected might expose to the virus, and, most importantly, the fewer people will die from COVID-19 or suffer long-term effects. With these vaccine breakthroughs, there is reason to be realistically optimistic that the pandemic’s days are indeed numbered.

Still, for reasons described in the section above, that optimism is tempered with realism: I believe it may take most or all of 2021 before we can return to a semblance of normal.

And it’s not just biomedical breakthroughs we should keep an eye on. History has shown that past catastrophes produced breakthroughs that improved the lives of many people. As Derek Thompson wrote in his inspiring article “How Cities Come Back from Disaster” published in The Atlantic:

“A major crisis has a way of exposing what is broken and giving a new generation of leaders a chance to build something better. Sometimes the ramifications of their choices are wider than one might think.”

Thompson goes on to show that the cholera epidemic of 1832 contributed to breakthroughs that vastly improved public health and life expectancy, Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871 led to improvements in fireproof building materials that sparked urban growth, and the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that killed 146 workers in New York City in 1911 led to safety protections and reasonable working-hour rules.

As you look out on the horizon, what do you see as post-traumatic growth lessons and opportunities that will arise out of our collective experience of the pandemic? In the second edition of "Connection Culture," updated and expanded in 2020, I argue there is a lot to be optimistic about.

I’m optimistic that the pandemic will increase people’s appreciation for the importance of human connection, including in the workplace. It follows that because connection helps individuals and organizations thrive, greater levels of connection will boost nationwide productivity, innovation and health.

Stay focused on your top 3 to 5 priorities

Have you noticed a change in your energy level during the pandemic? Perhaps you have less stamina throughout the day, or your sleep quality may be diminished. When the brain senses a change in the social environment, it may perceive it as a threat.

With all of the change directly or indirectly related to the pandemic, your brain has had a lot to assess and process during the last year! As a result, it may be drawing on even more energy these days as well as sending signals to the body’s fight-or-flight systems to be at the ready. If we have less available energy to consciously expend, we need to be strategic about how we use it.

Thrivers through the pandemic will maintain focus on what’s important and what they can do well in the current environment. This is a good time to be laser-focused on identifying, or re-evaluating, your three to five priorities for the year and making progress toward those goals. Again, pace yourself. Don’t try to do too much. Think about quality over quantity.

Stay connected

If you know me and/or my work, you saw this one coming! Staying connected to family, friends, colleagues and community provides the foundation to do everything else well and to experience joy in life. Past articles I’ve written have offered practical ways to stay relationally connected during the pandemic.

The new edition of "Connection Culture" will help equip you to be a better connector, to influence others about the importance of connection and perils of human disconnection, and to cultivate cultures of connection that will help you and yours thrive through the pandemic, and beyond.

With these three attributes in mind, what actions can you take in the next few days? Do you need to verbalize your realistic optimism to a certain colleague or the whole team? Does your project list need a fresh look and greater focus? Are there old friends with whom you could reconnect? Are there clients you could call with no agenda other than a sincere “How are you doing?”

By staying realistically optimistic, staying focused on a few priorities that you can do well and staying connected, you are likely to come out on the other side of the pandemic in a better place. 

 

Michael Lee Stallard, president and co-founder of Connection Culture Group, is a thought leader and speaker on how effective leaders boost human connection in team and organizational cultures to improve the health and performance of individuals and organizations. He is the author of "Connection Culture" and "Fired Up or Burned Out." To receive a 28-page "100 Ways to Connect" e-book, sample chapters of "Connection Culture" and Stallard's  monthly Connection Culture email newsletter at no cost, sign up here

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