Reopen now? Lessons for personal coping.

Pandemic “stay-at-home” policies stretch into weeks, and the psychological and financial strains on those who are unable to work bring many to the breaking point. They take to the streets to demonstrate their frustration and displeasure.

From a coping context, one’s work can be a strong psychological component of one’s identity. Those who bring home a paycheck are able to look in the mirror and see a “breadwinner,” someone who is responsible, productive, and capable of caring for others. When a job is taken away, those traits are taken away. Workers also often develop intense loyalty to their place of employment, and the workplace becomes an extension of self. Losing one’s job can be a vital threat to that sense of self.

In her book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, Pulitzer Prize historian Doris Kearns Goodwin talks about the noted journalist, Ray Baker. His father wanted him to join the family business after college, but Baker had discovered that business was not consistent with his sense of self. To honor his father, however, he gave it a try and returned home to learn the family business.

Baker soon realized how miserable he was: “I felt as though I were being crowded back into a kind of cocoon from which I had long ago worked free, and flown.” This rich prose captures how he could never hope to actualize himself with a career in business; the work was simply not who he was. He ended up with a productive and satisfying journalism career at McClure’s, a popular magazine of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Had he ever experienced a layoff like that experienced by many today, like them, he would have been psychologically devastated.

Prior to joining McClure’s, Baker worked for the Chicago Record. One of his assignments was to report on the plight of the unemployed during the depression of 1893. He interviewed scores of jobless men, and interacted with them on the streets. He learned their stories, their misery, and how their poverty was compounded by few opportunities for them to work. He wrote, “I have seen more misery in this last week than I ever saw in my life before….The miserable living conditions, the long hours, the low wages, the universal insecurity, tended to tear down the personality, cheapen the man.”

“Tear down the personality”; “cheapen the man.” Those words eloquently capture the anxiety, the helplessness, the depression, the attack on self-esteem that being without a job launches on the psyche. The once-secure breadwinner looks in the mirror and sees “cheap.”

The current demonstrations against stay-at-home restrictions are painful to watch. Many viewers fear for their health if reopening occurs too soon, yet they are empathetic with the jobless demonstrators, understanding their psychological pain. Stress is in ample supply all around.

From a coping perspective there’s no simple answer, no magical formula that will solve the issue quickly. I think it’s worth noting, however, that a part of everyone’s stress results from the either/or manner in which we frame the issue: close or reopen; the president or the governor; liberal or conservative; medical or financial; my needs or my neighbor’s needs; us or them.

Some of the personal conflicts you face in life are either/or: Have knee surgery or don’t. If you have it, and then have regrets, too bad – the deed is done. Other conflicts, however, are more subtle: “Should I assign Pete or Joan to lead the project team?” When you see the issue as an either/or, Pete or Joan dilemma, you are putting yourself in a decision-making straitjacket that is almost guaranteed to maintain your stress level, no matter what you do. So, why not assign Pete and Joan as co-leaders? If one obviously shines, you slowly elevate that one to leader. Notice how you have removed the either/or stressor, and made the conflict data driven: “I will let their performance determine which one emerges as leader.”

As a general rule, to mitigate your stress over a conflict, change your thinking from, “Choose A or B” to, “Pick the best features from each choice.” Then you can design your plan of action around that middle ground, and continually measure (test) how well the plan is proceeding. The resolutions to most conflicts are usually most successful when they include features from all possible options, and allow for feedback (data) to evaluate their effectiveness.

In the case of reopening a state, county, city, or a town, for instance, political leaders should make the process gradual. First this business opens, next this one, and so on down the line; embedded in the plan are protocols requiring objective features, such as crowd size, social-distancing, and masks. Finally, the plan must include provisions for continuous data collection to assess what’s going on, and make adjustments if needed. Apply this model to your personal conflicts and you will likely find significant mitigation of your stress.

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