Lessons from COVID to manage stress at work: Learn. Monitor. Distance. Protect. Connect.

Photo of two glasses and cigarettes and cover of James Joyce Ulysses.
Escape @Ellen Feldman

In late March 2020, we encouraged companies to make mental health a priority in COVID. By June we had forecast the mental health pandemic now raging. Two years later, over 80% of American workers report being stressed; depression and anxiety affect nearly 60% of them. Substance used related deaths increased by 25%; clinical insomnia rates by 37%.

Governments focused on stemming the physical pandemic, and most companies responded very late and with tools to palliate psychological symptoms — mental health apps, better mental health benefits, and leaves.

Meanwhile, we are burning out — and leaving our workplaces physically or emotionally. However, we can use the very tools we learned in COVID to alleviate the stress pandemic and slow its contagion— we educated ourselves about viruses and their impact on vulnerable populations. We learned to distance, monitor our symptoms and those of others close to us, and protect ourselves with personal protective equipment and new habits. Finally, we found new ways to connect.

Understand how brains work and how that matters

1) Understand how your brain and your nervous system work and, for example, how unmanaged stress links to brain shrinkage and brain fog. Focus your education on stress because our ability to properly handle it is central to the definitions of mental health and burnout.[i] Stress is our body’s response to pressure which usually presents in a feeling of emotional or physical tension — you can feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Presentations may be physical (poor sleep), emotional (irritability), and behavioral (lashing out). It can occur once acutely but also be episodic and even become chronic.

2) Take stock of the assumptions and biases you bring to mental health issues, and consider learning about attachment styles and stress. How have your prior experiences, including with people experiencing mental distress, caregivers and parents impact how you behave? Do you treat others just like your parents did or the exact opposite way?

3) And much like with COVID, remember that some who are particularly vulnerable or have underlying conditions and histories that will make it harder for them to manage stress properly. Think of them, especially your kids as you expose them to your anger and surrender them to social media.

Monitor symptoms

1) Scan yourself regularly for signs of distress. You might experience all or some of the following:

· Distraction and finding it harder to focus than before

· Challenges with decision-making (e.g., changing doctor’s appointments, postponing difficult conversations, reneging on agreements)

· Persistent worry

· Feeling of sadness

· Anger or irritability

· Loss of interest in activities you liked, like food, friends, sex, work, and sports.

Be particularly aware of inflection points that can strain even the best persons, teams, and organizations. This matters because seeking and providing appropriate support at crucial junctures can sometimes help reduce the chances of mental illnesses developing. The inflection points occur in our personal lives (getting divorced, getting married, having a baby, etc.), professional context (taking on a new job, getting promoted, retiring), or emotional inflection points (coming from an increasingly volatile, interconnected world).

2) Pay attention to yourself in as objective and nonjudgmental a way as possible. When are you feeling anxious, angry, or restless? What is the running commentary in your head? Why might it be occurring? How does your state of mind affect your state of health?

3) Help others understand how you think you might respond to stress. Then you can educate the primary source of stress in our work lives, namely our bosses, on how to best help you, perhaps using one of these conversation scenarios here. Ask colleagues to help you with these assessments. Make it possible for them to volunteer observations — it is otherwise risky to make them unprompted and unwelcome because of defensiveness.


1) From toxic thoughts — distance from the world when you are at work or home. The news and social media prey on fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Our minds and bodies suffer when we over-consume and engage in mental bulimia. Try to recognize when you are acting in fear and delay any immediate actions until you can take a reflection-oriented approach. You may not be able to choose your first thought, but you can almost always choose your second thought.

2) From people, including family members, negatively impacting your ability to manage stress. This could be recasting relationships that do not fulfill. Reflect on who brings us joy and who drains us, and why. Think of this like contact-tracing — who is stressing everyone else out. There are often these individuals in every family or team.

3) From home when you are at work. Your loved ones resent it when you bring work home, yet they are probably often coming to work with you, increasing pressures on you to solve problems in multiple venues and modes. Ask them to respect your boundaries. Blended lives are immense causes of stress. If they want you present at home, they need to let you be present at work. This could also mean checking financial or dating sites at work. Whatever form this takes, identify it, discuss it, and tackle it.


Do (“washing our hands”)

1) Trade convenience for health. This can be cooking home meals instead of buying takeout, taking the stairs, walking partway to work, or playing with your kids instead of doing something else on the to do. The investment of time in these activities pays off. Spend less time on your phone scrolling through redundant news; spend more time on fiction, cooking, art, history, or popular mechanics. Support corporate volunteering programs. Encourage your teams to consider walking and talking, together or remotely.

2) Write things down. This could be a list of your fears. Put the list down and for the next few days pick it up only to write what you can do instead of thinking and acting in fear. Or a gratitude list of 5 to 10 items. It’s OK to start simply with being grateful for 10 fingers, 10 toes but also a nice office space, and a good headset for all those online meetings.

3) Use tools such as our 21-day stress questionnaire to help you become an active observer and influencer of stressors at work — those you experience, those you might be imposing, and those you might be able to alleviate. Some sample questions include:

In week One: What stresses you at work negatively?

· What would have made your day significantly better? (fewer interruptions, personal calls)?

· What do you think others think are your primary sources of stress?

In week two: How might you be contributing to stress at work?

· Observe if you were abrupt or impatient. Why? What was the impact?

· How many times did you interrupt someone for something that could have waited? Why?

Week three: What can you do to improve the emotional climate at work?

· Ask a new staff member how they are doing and how you might be able to help/ask a long-time staff member for a couple of minutes of advice.

· Write a note or email to a colleague to thank them for what they did or how they made you feel. Or think about whether there is someone to whom you owe an apology; if yes, consider doing so.

Set barriers (“masking”) with your Emotional Protective Equipment.

1) Restrain pen and tongue. Do not spread hyperbole and misinformation at work — be it about management or world events. If you want to be and feel right, question that urge before fueling the flames. If the information is a healthy contribution, go ahead. If you find yourself being more cynical, you might be on the way to burnout.

2) Allow yourself and others to slow down. Living through a major crisis like COVID, and adjusting to new situations, is exhausting. It is normal to allow yourself more time for the same basic tasks. Talk to your supervisor to let them know that you are not the person you were two years ago. Set up meetings with you reports to “meet” then anew.

3) Choose how to start your day (especially when you don’t think you have time for self-care). Once you pick up your phone you are already at work. Focus on your breathing for 5 minutes. Each time an idea crosses your mind and distracts, bring yourself back to feeling and hearing your breath. Try this for 21 days consecutively. See what happens.

Connect in new and different ways

1) Actively take notice of others and act per their needs and ours. Ask yourself, “How can I have value for others at this moment?” Ask them, “what do you need the most from me now?” Understand that we have all been in the COVID boat together but are very different sailors.

2) Abide by the old AT&T phone ad: “Reach out and touch someone,” but make it “reach out and praise someone.” Tell people who make your life better at work that you appreciate their contribution, whoever they may be. Recognition and praise are central to employee well-being at all levels. Focus on the positive and what is. The little things and gestures can be everything, but they need to feel personal. Don’t forget bosses, unless they are terrible. Middle managers have been the bumper pads of the pandemic, doing multiple jobs — keeping people safe, organizing work, driving DEI imperatives, etc. They claim “happy wife, happy life.” The same is usually true of bosses.

3) Finally, practice some UNmasking. As we wrote in a recent piece, “We are not perfect, but a litany of signals we get from society and our digital world suggests that we should be, which has terrible consequences for our mental health. Instead, we often wind up being our own Narcissus, falling in love not with ourselves, but with the image of ourselves.” Be honest about what you can take on and how you can keep yourself safe, at least until we recover our emotional footing — and in doing so slow the spread.

******************************************************************Thank you for reading. Please let us know what you think. This article was written by the Human Sustainability Inside Out team and draws from pieces with Karthik Ganesh, Jacob Lokshin, Mel Martin, University of Miami Dean John Quelch, Cecily Tyler, and the work of Stanford Professor Andrew Huberman.

[i] The World Health Organization defines mental health as a “state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Burnout, in turn, is an occupational phenomenon: “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”




Carin-Isabel Knoop (on Humans in the Digital Era)

Harvard Business School Executive Director, passionate about improving lives at work. Pragmatic optimist devoted to helping those who care for others.