This is not “the new normal”​ – it is weird and hard right now.

This is not “the new normal”​ – it is weird and hard right now.

“Passengers thrown from a sinking ship into lifeboats haven’t taken up rowing. This is not a new normal, it is a temporary abnormal.” 

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I confess I was guilty of using the now over-worn cliches “unprecedented”, “navigating the new normal” and “pivot”. “The “new normal” is getting old fast. In my defence, my team and I were also trying to move our company to work remotely with brand new IT systems and to comprehend losing 50% of booked revenue literally in a week whilst launching a new brand and digital platform to deliver e-learning. March through to now is kind of a blur. I am telling you this because I see you, the leader who has “navigated” their way through 2020 and I want to validate the rollercoaster of emotion, the wellbeing toll, the ridiculous highs and lows and and general weirdness and difficulty of recent times.

There were many nights I woke at 3am trying to work out how we would make payroll and keep everyone on. And we couldn’t. We stood down some valued team members and had some resignations more recently as the disruption and stress of remote working and uncertainty took its toll. We were still so much more fortunate than many businesses. And I also witnessed the very best reflection of our values as a company. To be compassionate, accountable, real and excellent in what we do and most of all, to care about people. We made lightening fast decisions, implemented new concepts in weeks not months and attracted some fabulous new team members to join us who share in our vision to place wellbeing and mental health front and centre in our organisations and community. We responded to a spike in suicidal ideation, workplace critical incidents, substance abuse, domestic violence and serious mental health decline and bulk-billed telehealth clients so they could access support for free. All whilst dealing with our own personal COVID-related challenges. I have never been prouder to witness a group of people continue to deliver professional excellence under such tough and dynamic circumstances.

We returned to face-to-face consulting over the past week. We planned it fiercely, consulted with the team and communicated with clients. Day 1, I think I had subconsciously expected some kind of “unicorns and rainbows” scenario in which we would all bound in to the office, embrace the new social distancing and personal hygiene protocols as our “new normal” and somehow feel invigorated, bonded and energised. We weren’t so much. The HP team delivered excellent client service and outcomes, but we were fatigued and apprehensive. And fair enough too. More change, more work adapting to new systems and a subliminal anxiety with constant cleaning, physical distance. more severe client presentations and no shared Tim Tams or hugs. Looking people in the eye in a consulting room felt unnatural at first. And we heard stories that brought us to our knees for a time.

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None of the things we are doing right now are normal. Flattening the curve has warped our lives and the “new normal” is getting old fast. The measures we are taking are unarguably necessary to reverse the tide of a significant health issue. Others are merely poor substitutions and workarounds that we can hopefully be given up soon. This is temporary abnormal. Passengers thrown from a sinking ship into lifeboats haven’t taken up rowing. They are getting through, surviving, doing what they can to adapt to change that has been foist on them suddenly and horribly. Will it last? For a while, perhaps. But all the other problems and divisions may eventually come creeping back if we are not vigilant and conscious of how we shape this. “New normal” is used as a soothing reminder that we’re all “adapting” but COVID-19 continues to impact us all very differently. This is our “new now” which presents the dual challenge of accepting what we have to do differently for an unknown period of time but also still creating a space to hold hope that things can change for the better.

What is normal still is a nebulous fear. As we move into our fifth month of angst and re-opening of society, we all have been conditioned to be afraid. Of each other. And this acquired social anxiety will take some time to dissipate. There is fear we may lose our job or not be able to find another one. Fear about how to pay the bills or of losing the business we have built over years of sacrifice and hard work through no fault of our own. Fear watching the global death count continue to rise and horrific civil unrest in America following the murder of George Floyd last week. Some newly-adopted, anxiety-driven behaviours will remain for some time. This pandemic has had a significant psychological impact on the people of the world. And how long that takes to lift after lockdown depends entirely on a person’s mindset, how resilient they are, their personal situation and resources and how scarring this experience has been for them. A lot of people are going to be broke and weary of, well, most things for a while.

“Don’t rank your suffering.”

Brene Brown recently said in a NY Times interview “a crisis highlights all of our fault lines” and there is a risk we will work our stuff out on other people. Don’t rank your suffering. We never know someone’s private life really. And don’t expect everyone to function at their pre-COVID levels. This is a marathon, not a sprint and we need to manage our energy to match this sustained demand. It is easy fall down the rabbit hole of worry spirals when we focus on things that are beyond our control and right now, we’re in a global situation in which a lot of things are out of our control. What do you need? What boundaries can you set for yourself? Asking yourself these questions can help you practice self-care in the now, even when things feel daunting.

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We are all flawed humans doing our best to get through and many people have shown the best of human traits – resilience, ingenuity, and grace. Hope and courage are important traits too right now. In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on earth, her name meaning “One Who Bears All-Gifts”, she was blessed with all manner of gifts by the gods. She was given a jar that contained all the troubles and evils that could afflict humankind and unable to contain her curiosity, Pandora opened the jar, releasing sickness, death and all manner of misfortunes and evils into the world. She closes the lid just in time before hope could escape. 

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We’ve accepted, we’ve adjusted, and we’ve adapted – now where to from here? Historically, crisis accelerates change. Will we slip back to the ways things were? How different is the world going to be? How different are we going to be?  I would love to read your thoughts.