COVID-19 Rocked the Life I Took For Granted and Punched Me in the Face
A Story From the Perspective of Bob Selle, Chief People Officer
2020 will rewrite history on many fronts.
Like most of us, the past year has not gone as planned. So much of my writing and speaking has focused on mindfulness, healthy habits, and making time for wellbeing. I am here to tell you this: I failed my own teachings and I am OK with that.
Looking back to March 12th of 2020 when my company held an emergency leadership meeting and committed to transition the company to work from home, the magnitude of the coming change did not register. At that point I had no idea that the next day my two teens would find out that they would be learning from home, and little did we know this change would last through the rest of the school year.
The stress of being a Chief People Officer of an essential retailer and knowing our first priority was to protect our associates when we knew very little about this virus was especially challenging. It took great time and effort to ensure that we made the right decisions and that everyone felt safe. There were so many long days of planning, communicating and updating safety protocols and like many people, I was fried by the end of every day.
On top of the work challenges, I was watching my son, an extrovert and always on the go, adjust to what had to feel like solitary confinement. His emotional adjustment was painful to watch and my words could not heal his pain. He really struggled, and frankly, I did right along with him. For my daughter, a senior in high school, seeing everything she worked her entire academic career to achieve get cancelled just broke my heart. Of all of my children she struggled the most with our cross-country relocation and after 5 years of adjusting, she was ready to embrace and celebrate the second semester of her senior year.
As if that was not enough, I watched from a half a country away as my mom contracted and almost lost her life to COVID-19. I will never forget that call from my sister. Reality hit me like a brick when she said the doctor told us it did not look like my mom was going to make it and I should fly home to prepare to say goodbye.
What’s more, our two oldest daughters were in different states and one lost her job when the pandemic began. All of us felt trapped and we were missing the human contact we all took for granted.
To state the obvious, managing this crisis at home and at work was exhausting.
It took two months to realize that I allowed my wellbeing to become a victim of COVID-19. A simple gift from my 18 year old daughter helped me to realize this — a book titled Unplug. I finally made the space to read, meditate, reflect and look inward. Then I read this quote: A key way to explore is through self-reflection through quiet meditation or journaling. Doing this means you can start synthesizing what you are feeling. I lived by that for the past five years and now through all the pain and shock in my new normal, my knowledge of the power of mindfulness came back to me.
As I started processing all my family had been through, I realized I was going through phases of grief. Seeing what was happening in the world and how we as Americans became so divided hurt me profoundly. I could not believe that neighbors, who have stood side by side from the founding of our country were at odds and would not try to find common ground. How did we get here? Our country has always risen up together to take on all threats. What changed? Vacation or any social activity we took for granted may have been forever altered. Returning back to the healing practices of mindfulness was foundational to processing the grief I was experiencing during the pandemic.
Life is a gift and our responsibility is to make human connections and to wake up every day expecting to change the world through simple acts of kindness. Throughout this whole ordeal I have realized that this pandemic is the Great Reset.
Over the past decade, the evolution of work has taken on some concerning themes. No one takes their vacation time in the 24/7 work environment. Two working parents are always on the go. A side effect of our daily dependence on technology — loneliness — sets in as we feel the effects of the absence of true human connection. Sound familiar?
The truth is that we need each other. We cannot afford to isolate and face these challenges on our own. As a society, we are better together and we are resilient. Now is the time to use our adaptability. We must commit to being better together. To me, this is an exciting time and an opportunity to create a world we hoped for. In the words of the Zambian proverb: If you run alone, you will run fast. If we run together, we will run far.
Three Things We Learned During This Time of Tumultuous Change
As each of the leaders who shared their personal stories in this series compared notes on how we coped in pandemic isolation, we found that we learned similar lessons that we will carry with us. As all three of us are based in New England, the end of summer has brought colder weather, shutting down options for the beach, outdoor sports, eating at restaurants outside and other COVID-safe outdoor activities. And as each of us tries to be realistic about what 2021 will bring, the reality is that each of our families have needed to continue to work and learn remotely as COVID-19 spreads in our communities. The thought of continued isolation with no defined end is daunting.
As we shared our experiences from this past year, we realized we went through some of the stages of grief that included denial, anger, depression and finally acceptance. We eventually gave ourselves a break and realized that coping mechanisms were carrying us through these stages of grief. Eating junk food, pizza, tacos, Oreos, drinking a ton of fresca, bingeing shows on Netflix — all these things felt comforting. And our lesson-learned is THAT’S OK.
We learned a few additional lessons for surviving and thriving throughout this pandemic:
- Be kind to yourself and to others. Everyone is going through their own struggle. Other people may overshare their struggles with you, or they may choose to share nothing at all. People may not act like themselves, as we have witnessed members of our communities being rude to restaurant and grocery store workers. We are all human, and can fall prey to these moments of weakness. The body’s response to stress, be it irritability, eating comfort food, drinking more than usual — are symptoms of the stress we are all going through. We need to go easy on ourselves during this time, and we need to go easy on others.
- Support your teams. For many leaders, now is the true test of our leadership. How will we be remembered during this trying time? For many of us, we need to be creative about being a calming presence in a virtual work environment. Over-communicating is important. Making an extra effort to connect with people personally can go a long way. Do our words and actions display the humanistic support that people need in a time when their world is turned upside down?
- Don’t go it alone. We have felt first-hand the harmful effects of loneliness and isolation. Humans are social beings and we need each other. To get through the remainder of the pandemic, we need to lean on others and encourage our teams to do the same. Whether it is by facilitating creative ways for people to connect or simply resolving to choose a different person each day for a one-on-one conversation, these efforts to increase connectivity in isolation can make a big difference in our own mental health and the mental health of our team members. Personal connection can catalyze resilience during trying times.
As the pandemic continues over the coming months, we will continue to seek out creative ways to connect, and we hope that you will reach out to your network in this way, too. By leaning on each other during this time, we can find our way through this frightening time to a new, and perhaps even a better normal.
This is Part 3 of a 3-part series on leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Part I: 3 Leaders Get Real On Surviving 2020
- Part II: What Being a Working Mom in COVID-19 Lockdown Taught Me About Empathy
You can follow the authors on via the links below:
Haelle, T. (2020, September 10). Your ‘Surge Capacity’ Is Depleted — It’s Why You Feel Awful. Medium. https://elemental-medium-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/elemental.medium.com/amp/p/de285d542f4.
Scoblic, J. P. (2020, November 25). Learning from the Future. https://hbr.org/2020/07/emerging-from-the-crisis#helping-your-team-heal.
Smet, A. D. (2020, September 17). Your Organization is Grieving — Here’s How You Can Help. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/your-organization-is-grieving-heres-how-you-can-help.