Staff Perspective – Stress Challenges of COVID

Bernadette LaMontagneTechGirls Program Coordinator

The COVID-19 global pandemic has been challenging for so many people. Many have lost jobs, and businesses have closed, many have gotten sick and even lost loved ones. Often, families and friends kept apart have felt deeply lonely (especially during the holiday season), just aching for a hug, but also fearing getting too close. In these trying times, individuals, businesses, governments, and non-profits are showing a rarely seen broad-scale public burnout. People are wondering (often aloud) “what in the world are we supposed to do? When will this end? How are we supposed to get through this?”

While I certainly don’t claim to have any solutions to the pandemic (aside from wearing my mask and social distancing), as a person with a preexisting health issue prior to COVID, I have plenty of experience in the worrying department. I also have some understanding of why/how we need to address stress before attempting to jump back into work/life (rather than just pushing it away).

Why Just “Snapping Out of It” Doesn’t Work with Stress

In my years of worrying experience, a “solution” I often heard from the media and other (typically, well-meaning) people was simply, “don’t worry- just snap out of it/ignore it/suck it up/get over it/move forward…. and think rationally. You are stronger than this”. Perhaps if I were a man, I would have also gotten “man up”. Hmmm…Now. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe I’m strong and I do think calm rational thought can help us make great decisions to complex issues, and I do think such people usually mean well and attempt to empower us.

However, what this approach overlooks is that intense stress has a unique effect on the brain in that it is not always possible to do our optimal rational thinking under such conditions. Now I am no brain scientist, but from what I understand physiologically, stress interferes with our rational thinking-center’s ability to do its job. Our prefrontal cortex goes, as they say, “offline” and the limbic system engages one of our three automatic behaviors: fight, flight, or freeze.

Now, if we are fighting face-to-face with a polar bear or running into a burning building to save a child, then this automatic response is going to be critically important. However, for riding out a now 8-month global pandemic, while dealing with the more complex types of day-to-day decisions that we all need to make at work and at home, stress can be damaging, interfering with our ability to make the best possible choices.

Legacy International: Understanding and Realistically Addressing Stress

My experience with Legacy International, a non-profit international exchange organization based in Virginia, is that they understand the importance of managing stress, not just sweeping it under the rug, or giving stress-reduction “lip service”. This experience has allowed the management and staff to be more flexible, more responsive and to see opportunities to pivot where others may have not. Some of the actions management took included:

1) Holding Weekly meetings, where staff could bring up things going on in their lives during Covid; and sharing tips on how they take care of themselves (exercise etc.)

2) Prioritizing mental health training for staff and students: After a staff member attended a mental health training all staff got to benefit from the lessons of that training in a Friday meeting.

3) Offering extra days off in December and January to refuel our tanks through personal time or service to the community.

4) Checking in regularly with staff and making accommodations where needed.

5) Providing extra space for brainstorming and not expecting perfection.

6) Asking the wider community for help: reaching out to the wider community, Legacy ran a three-part fundraiser to help support our long-running international exchange, the Global Youth Village.

7) Asking staff to identify challenges, but also silver linings in the time of COVID.

8) Opening up a virtual Global Viewpoints Forum, where the public can discuss the effects of the pandemic on their lives and business, a place for people to network, share tips, and how it might be overcome.

These techniques have trickled down to our program participants as well. I find we use these similar skills to strengthen our regular programming and help us gear up for new opportunities in international exchange! Thinking about the various possible outcomes allowed us to pivot quickly to pro-active virtual programming and to start planning for possible (in-person, hybrid, and virtual) options for upcoming programming. I am incredibly grateful to work at Legacy International!