How to work during a pandemic

Devin Coldewey@techcrunch / 11:30 pm +07•March 1, 2020

Woman using laptop on couch filled with papers, directly above

Image Credits: Marc Romanelli / Getty Images

The world is bracing for the seemingly inevitable proliferation of SARS-COV-12, also known as COVID-19 and coronavirus, which has already paralyzed cities and isolated millions. In the U.S., especially the nonstop work culture in startups, we tend to think we’re immune to such things and carry on business as usual. We are not only deluding ourselves but putting others in danger — so here are a few ground rules to make sure you don’t make this difficult period any harder for yourself or the people you work with.

We decided to publish something on this because we saw a lot of people unsure about what is appropriate to do and not do, as a CEO, an aspiring founder, or an employee in the tech world. If you are looking for the latest news on the health crisis or want to learn more about the virus.

1. Take reasonable precautions and be transparent

The CDC says that good self hygiene and frequent hand-washing are the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus. Masks are actually not recommended — they’re more for catching the virus as it leaves an infected person than preventing it from entering a healthy one. If you’re coughing and sneezing, you should probably wear a mask right now, but if not, a poorly fitted mask you’re frequently adjusting with potentially contaminated hands is worse than nothing.

You’re also only at risk of being affected by people you come into contact with — this isn’t a nerve agent that’s going to creep in through the cracks of your windows. To minimize risk, stay home if you can. This may mean canceling meetings, working remotely, or skipping a conference (if it hasn’t been canceled already). If you are not feeling well in any way, just stay home; Now is not the time to be going into work (or the gym, or wherever) saying you’re “just a little under the weather,” or “it’s probably just allergies.”

Work through your ramen supplies, rice, and frozen leftovers, and if you do decide to go out, wash your hands frequently or carry hand sanitizer. If you order in and would rather have the driver drop something off than hand it to you, that’s fine too.

When you do something that could affect others, it might be good to explain that you’re doing it because the threat of infection. Choose your words carefully, but be clear about it: “Can we do a video call instead? I’m trying to minimize my exposure right now” is fine. If people think you’re doing this because you think they’re infected or dirty, that’s a problem on their side, and they probably haven’t read this list.

To be clear, the world isn’t a death trap right now. But because the virus can be asymptomatic and still spread, it’s not obvious where it is and isn’t dangerous to be. So you should do what makes you feel comfortable and minimizes the risk of exposure in general.

2. Don’t question precautions taken by others

A lot of things are going to go wrong over the next few weeks. Major events have already been canceled and no doubt many face-to-face meetings are being skipped out on. That sucks — but limit your judgment of the people making those decisions.

If someone doesn’t want to shake hands or fist bump, that’s OK. If someone wants to meet by video instead of the coffee shop, that’s OK. If someone leaves work early because they get freaked out, that’s OK.

Even in ordinary circumstances we never really know what other people’s motivations and limitations are, and in this situation we know even less than usual. Individuals or companies may be under pressures you’re not aware of — family, financial, religious, personal — and their decisions, even if they cause serious inconvenience to you, have to be accepted without question right now.

That goes for employers, too: If someone wants extra sick time right now, let them have it. If they want to remote in to a crucial meeting, that should be fine. If later, as their employer, you feel they may have taken advantage of the situation to slack off or take a little extra paid leave, that’s something to talk about later. Not during a global health crisis.

Now, you’re likely to see a lot of absurd and racist precautions like not eating at Chinese restaurants or popping bubble wrap because it’s supposedly Chinese air. Rather than take individuals to task for their mistaken or bigoted views, though, try to reinforce the truth by sharing reliable information from sources like the CDC and WHO. No one takes a tweet from you seriously, but people may trust an international consortium of medical and epidemiology professionals. At least that’s the hope.

3. Take the loss

This is going to cost you money, time, and opportunity. Meetings will be delayed, which will eat up overhead. Promised dates for products and services will come and go and your company will not meet them. Information you need won’t be available until it’s too late. It’s going to hurt!

Just remember: You’re not the only person or company it’s happening to. Everyone is taking a hit on this one.

Have you seen the stock market? People are getting rinsed at historic levels.

Know anyone in South Korea or coastal China? Think about what they’re dealing with.

Mobile World Congress is canceled — it’s huge! What are the organizers going to do? No idea. What about Facebook? Will they have a small, weird F8 later or what? GDC will be a ghost town if it happens at all.

This changed from a “how do I avoid issues” to pure damage control for pretty much everyone sometime over the last week. So instead of thinking about how you’re being put out, start thinking about what happens afterwards. Pack your schedule with follow-up reminders, tell your crew to track changes to timelines, inform and apologize to clients. If they’re following rule number 2, they’ll understand.

4. Evolve and interrogate your process

If these events, or others like them, are seriously affecting your productivity or the ability of your company to function, maybe you should think about that a bit. What are you unable to do — specifically? What’s stopping you — specifically?

Do you rely too much on face-to-face communications and find yourself unable to explain concepts in writing? Has your team abandoned Slack for anything productive? Are your press releases and email pitches limp? When you’re forced to fall back from your strengths, you necessarily encounter your own weaknesses.

This is an opportunity to take a good look at what you and your company are and aren’t good at when it comes to communication and productivity. In fact, it’s more than an opportunity — you’re going to be slapped in the face with these shortcomings whether you like it or not. Whether you make something out of it or not is up to you.

And think of this time as an opportunity to simply catch up. What tasks have you been putting off that you can finally take the time to do? You could work on getting to inbox zero, read the documents you promised you would weeks ago, or practice your pitch.

So much of what the tech and tech-enabled industries (which is pretty much everything now) do, we can do with limited access to one another, or even limited connectivity. And even if you can’t do your job, you can always get better at it.

5. Remember that it’s not just you

What’s happening right now is a global issue of great complexity and with far-reaching effects. The things happening to you and your company are a very small part of it.

Don’t take this personally. COVID-19 didn’t emerge from nature’s petri dish to smite your B2B payments play. Like a tropical storm or political scandal, this is something that comes out of nowhere and causes indiscriminate damage. You’re not the only one being affected, and chances are if you’re reading this that you’ve got it better than most.

At the same time, if you’re feeling frustrated or scared or pent in, knowing that it’s not just you can be helpful — others are dealing with this too and will understand.

Living with the pandemic if you already have mental health problems

Living with the pandemic if you already have mental health problems

Page last reviewed: 4 August 2020 The Mental Health Foundation is part of the national mental health response during the coronavirus outbreak. Government advice designed to keep us safe is under constant review and will be different depending on where you live.

The COVID-19 epidemic may be especially challenging for those of us with mental health problems – wherever we are on that journey.

If we are currently struggling, we may find it harder to get support, and if we manage well most of the time, it might be harder to follow our usual ways of coping.

The pandemic – and the things we’ve all been asked to do in response – may also shake the foundations of stability or recovery for those of us who are currently well or have been for some time.

It’s important, at a time like this, to be aware of our mental health and how we are doing on a daily and weekly basis. Early recognition can make getting back on track easier.

Many of us are coping well and using skills we’ve learned through experience and support to manage through this crisis.

It’s important that we don’t assume that everyone with mental health issues is vulnerable or unable to cope, which can be damaging and lean into stigma.

Why might COVID-19 be a big issue for those of us with a lived experience of mental health problems?

Those of us with lived experience of mental health problems are, sadly, more likely to experience inequality and health challenges.

We are more likely to be isolated, we are at greater risk of having other health conditions which make us more susceptible to COVID-19 and we often find it hard to ask for and get support, even at the best of times.

So, what are some of the major concerns?

  1. Many of us have worked hard to find ways to live with distress or symptoms in a way that allows us to function at home and at work or study. The pandemic and social isolation may undermine these or make us vulnerable to crisis until we find new ways of coping.
  2. Sometimes, the restrictions on our lives and media reporting of the pandemic can clash with experiences we have had with mental health.
    • If we have challenges around food and eating, a change in the type or pattern of eating and shopping can jeopardise our recovery or upset techniques we have learned to keep well.
    • The public health messages and media commentary on the pandemic can be triggering for people who experience obsessions or intrusive thoughts relating to contamination or spreading disease. Simple, repeated slogans are needed to persuade people to follow lockdown rules but phrases like ‘stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives’ can have a huge impact on people if our distress has always made us believe that we should take action to protect others from contagions we believe we might spread.
    • If we have been detained in hospital or have isolated ourselves in our homes in the past, the need to stay home now can remind us of those times. The focus of the media on people supposedly breaking government guidance, and the actions of the police enforcing it, might make some us feel more watched or exposed. This may be exacerbated if we’ve had previous contact with the police or the Criminal Justice System, or if we’ve had similar experiences whilst detained in hospital. Hearing Voices Network developed an excellent resource on surviving the epidemic if you have visions or hear voices.
    • If we have experienced trauma, then our flashbacks may be stronger and more frequent, and some of the coping strategies we might use to cope with them may no longer be available.
    • Similarly, if we struggle with self-harm or substance misuse, it can be hard to resist urges. We may feel that A&E is no longer an option for emergency treatment – though it is. We may be worried about the risks of abrupt withdrawal from drugs or alcohol.
    • We may not be able to access our usual support network, see friends, or go to our peer support/self-help group. It may be that home is not a safe place.
  3. Services are under pressure and the professional relationships that are often key to our lives are changing at the moment. Our support may have changed, and we may be unable to see familiar support staff. We may also be worried about accessing medication.
  4. A lot of services and support have moved online or over the phone and we may not be comfortable with this kind of support. Some people find video calls disorientating, or do not like speaking on or answering the phone. Others may not be confident around the technology. It’s important to acknowledge that while online, phone or text support can be great for some people, it doesn’t work for everyone. There are some people who prefer face-to-face and they might struggle more at the moment because this is far less available.
  5. We may feel that our concerns, or any deterioration in our mental health, make us an additional burden on our loved ones, our support system, and the NHS. There have been confusing messages in the media about this, and who ‘deserves’ care, and we might understandably be worried that A&E and emergency services may not be available if things reach crisis point.

Whatever we feel, it is understandable, expected even, that this challenging period for the world will take a toll on us.

It’s also a confusing time, because some of us might be coping better than anticipated. We may feel comfortable in ‘crisis mode’ or be used to being isolated or getting limited support, so this doesn’t feel too different, yet.

What steps could we try to take to look after our mental health at the moment?

There are lots of mental health tips being shared at the moment, many of which are useful for those of us with mental health problems.

That said, some suggestions can also seem overwhelming or out of reach – financially or socially. Things like taking on new hobbies, cooking new things or paying for expensive deliveries or subscriptions.

A lot of this advice might seem more aimed at people who don’t normally struggle with their mental health, so might seem simple, or just not intended for us.

The ideas below are intended to give a start. Whatever we can manage, and that feels OK, is good enough.

1. Try to do the basics when you can

Eating, sleeping, moving (either inside or outside) and making sure we keep hydrated are the building blocks of life, and are important to our mental health – but they can seem overwhelming at a time like this.  

If you can keep your routine, or establish a new one, it may be easier to keep well. This is not easy to do. Writing a routine down at first may help. 

2. Try to accept that you are worthy of support

It’s hard to ask for help and it can be hard to believe that you are worthy of people’s time. It’s can also be hard to believe that you have things to offer.  

You are worthy of supportTry to be kind to yourself. Self-compassion is always important – though it may be hard. 

Health services such as your GP and pharmacy are still operating. Even under pressure, they are still there to  help, whether it’s with your mental or physical health. Don’t suffer in silence or ignore early warning signs that might prevent a crisis. 

3. Try to make a plan with your support team and professionals 

If you have support from mental health services or other organisations, ask them how things are changing during the epidemic.  

Mental health staff face the same pressures as other NHS teams, with staff absence and a need to work out new ways to work. Even so, they are still there.  

Try to ask for what you need, if you can. If you don’t feel able to explain difficulties, see if a friend or family member can help explain, or try writing it down.  

If things do need to change and that is difficult for you, give the new way a chance – it might be OK.  

Speak to your pharmacist or GP about prescriptions and blood tests. If you have to speak with other agencies, like the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) or your landlord or banks, remember you can get advice about your rights from a range of sources. 

4. Try to build a circle of support 

A circle of support is a group of people and tools that you gather around you for when times are hard. This may be practical or emotional support (like someone to look after you or your pet if you are unwell,  someone who could do your shopping if you feel unable to, or a friend to send you a text each morning to check you are up). A circle of support can be in person or via digital means. 

5. Try to build and maintain connections, even when it seems hard

Most of us need a balance of being on our own and being with others. Being forced to be on our own can be damaging, and connection with other people is so important to our mental health. 

Being able to connect with people online or on the phone can be really helpful- but also overwhelming or confusing. It can take time to figure out how different apps or online tools work and which ones are right for you (if any).  

Perhaps you’ve always known the value of online communities and are able to rely on peer support from online friends. If you have skills you could share, then consider doing that if you can. 

6. Try to lean on your experiences of coping in the past 

If you’ve experienced mental health issues, there’s a chance you’ve gone through periods where you’ve been isolated, withdrawn, or challenged. You might have surprised yourself in the past with what you’ve been able to cope with, even when it seemed too awful to contemplate. It’s time to remember those times and use that learning. 

You may have a plan, or even a box of things you know help when things are hard. If you don’t and are feeling well at the moment this might be a good time to gather some things together.  

You could include relaxation tracks or breathing exercises, diversions like colouring, music or video games, or doing something creative. You could even build a den or safe space in the house. There are now a lot of free events – theatre, virtual tours of museums and similar – so you may find something that interests you.  

Try to do something nice for yourself every day and celebrate small wins – even if it’s as simple as washing your hair or going outside for a walk.  

7. Try to express yourself – to others and in private 

It can be hard to express the things we feel when times are hard. Getting it out can be helpful – whether we share or not. You could keep a private journal or blog, carry a notebook, or use social media or creative arts.  

It’s great if you have people you can confide in but even if you don’t, writing things down to revisit yourself can really help. Some people find keeping a note of things they are grateful for, or things they’ve learned, however small, helpful. 

If you use social media or blogs, make sure you remember to check your privacy settings and think through how comfortable you are sharing before you post.  

8. Try to limit your exposure to the news 

The news is all about coronavirus and this may add to our worries or rumination, where we chew over every thought in our heads.  

If this is an issue for you, then try and listen or read one news bulletin a day, then switch off and do other things – though this is hard for all of us at the moment.  

9. Try to be in the moment 

Many of us have things in our past which affect the way we live our lives now. Many of us also worry about how things in the future will pan out. Both are important – in terms of understanding our lives and planning – but while coronavirus restrictions are in place, it may be helpful to try and live in the present. Take it one day at a time if you can. 

That means respecting the past and what it means, but passing each minute, hour and day as a new opportunity, and another step towards the restrictions ending.  

If we can work to forgive ourselves and take care of ourselves – it will help. The only way is through. 

10. Try to be a part of your community and help, if you are able 

If you are feeling well, there may be things you can do in the community to help out – especially if you are at home. Walking neighbourhood dogs, helping to deliver food or volunteering for local community initiatives can be a great way to give back.  

If you have IT, digital or creative skills, these are often needed by community groups and don’t require you to be out and about. Our resource Doing Good Does You Good explains how volunteering can be good for our mental health. 

This piece was authored by Mental Health Foundation staff with lived experience of distress and improved by the input of peers across the organisation. We are particularly grateful for the advice of external reviewers – in particular the valuable suggestions made by Akiko Hart, Chief Executive of NSUN. NSUN are hosting a range of blogs and resources about living with distress during the pandemic.