People react to stress and crises very differently. Some people deflate like a balloon and are unable to cope with the bare necessities of life, such as getting up on time, showering and eating. It is a safe bet to say that their work has also gone out the window. Others seem more robust. They have said to themselves: "crisis or no crisis, I will continue to be the best (read: most productive) version of myself." As they pound down their fist on the table as a sign of strength and unaffectedness they also chug down a litre of coffee, open up their laptops and work the day away from home. Their productivity is at peak-levels. Top performance day in day out. This seems to be an argument that remote working, or with COVID-19 working from home specifically, is in fact the solution to issues of low productivity. But is it? Is this new high of productivity a sign of robustness and resilience. Or is this simply panic in a form that was unknown to us before?
Before I delve deeper into this article I should note that I am a massive proponent of working from home. I think allowing emplpoyees to work (some days) from home can boost morale, their perception of the company, the sense of security felt from and within the company and can simply improve productivity by allowing the employee to choose their own optimal working hours, rather than be molded into the 9-5 shape. Having said that, I'm not convinced that all the work and peaks in productivity we're currently seeing are driven by exclusively positive factors. Forbes published an article with Dr Ali Fenwick, professor of organizational behavior at Hult International Business School in Dubai, regarding what he has dubbed "panic working." Ali argues that rather than focusing on the fact that people are working from home more, they are working from in uncertain conditions. It's the latter that is making the impact.
Now anyone who has ever opened up a biology or psychology textbook knows people don't do stress well. What drives stress? Well, uncertainty is pretty damn high on the list for most people. Not knowing when you'll be able to work "normally" again, or not knowing IF you'll be able to work again after COVID-19 is scary. Because not working means not having income. And no income might mean no food, no home and no (health) insurance. Of course, COVID-19 comes with other stressors besides loss of job, career and income. Lots of people are fearing for their health and often fear even more for the health of their older and/or weaker relatives.
All in all, it's a very stressful time. And panic working, according to Ali, is simply a coping strategy. So how do we cope?
According to Ali there are four ways of coping:
The first strategy is the ostrich effect: People are sticking their head in the sand. They ignore COVID-19 by pretending it's business as usual. Of course, reality can catch up quickly and avoiding any news on COVID-19 is near impossible. As a result, to avoid reality even better, people work even more, pulling absurdly long days. Well, that's panic working.
The second strategy is much more about signalling to others that you are coping. You are not really about tricking yourself, but you'll at least want to trick others by seeming like a busy bee. You're looking for proof and validation that you are busy (the workplace can't really give you those anymore). This affliction can be accompanied by obsessive social media usage that shows levels of productivity and "unaffectedness."
Sometimes the thoughts driving panic working aren't as "wholesome" as deluding yourself or others. Sometimes there is the need to survive. I have mentioned already the fear of losing your job. Some people know, or at least expect, there to be lay-offs when business are allowed to open again, because of the averse economic consequences and the inevitable economic crisis (or at least depression) hitting. They are trying to outcompete people in similar positions to them, so they are chosen to be allowed to continue working. This drive is just as animalistic as the ostrich and the bee, it is just much more serious. This is (panic) working to survive.
Now that the world is out of control, a lot of people will try their best to regain control, and working, and doing nothing but working, might give that feeling of control back to them. You know your work, your work knows you. As such, it's the comfort blanket we never knew work could be. This strategy is very heavily linked to the previous strategy. Where a belief that you are in control over keeping your job (COVID-19 has overpowered us all, don't be ashamed) will drive us to work harder and harder, into sheer frenzy.
These are the four coping strategies Ali mentioned in the article. If you are a manager dealing with employees who could possibly be suffering from this, read the previous Forbes article on effective management during these times here.
We now know what panic working is. It might manifest itself as a genuine desire to continue to be productive and try to make the best out of a rotten situation, but it might morphe into a set of much more sinister coping strategies. If you constantly overwork in a mental state that is equal to fear, what you're heading for is called a burnout. If you don't believe the adverse effect long term stress can have, please read this article on long(er)-term cortisol production. So, what to do if you are suffering from panic working? At first, just like within grief and dealing with alcoholism, you need to recognise that your behaviour is problematic. You need to identify that you are working a lot and why you are working a lot. If you are genuinely concerned about being laid-off it is time to reach out to your supervisor or manager, or whomever is in charge. They might be able to calm you and reassure you about your position within the company. If you get this reassurance you can take a better look again at your work schedule. Worst case scenario: they cannot reassure you and in fact they tell you that it is effectively game over. If this is the case, you now no longer live in uncertainty. You are now quite certain of what the next step is: being without a job. And although the information you're being presented with is sh*t, it's information you can work with. You now know you need to make your money go longer than expected. You know you need to look for a new job, apply again, edit your cv etc. From hereon, there's steps to take, rather than just ploughing away in panic. If you are not the only one you know who suffers from this, you can organise a social self-help group. You and your friends can have set times at which you're not allowed to work and have to call each other to, first make sure the other person isn't working and second be social and actually talk about something besides work. This will work miracles! Another option of dealing with panic working is much more internal rather than the external solutions provided above. Rather than having others calm and support you, you can do it all yourself. Again, make a strict schedule, stick to it and distract yourself. Have other things planned in besides work, whether they are social or not. This is a way of calming and distracting yourself. One of the activities I might suggest to you is to actually do yoga or some form of exercise that is cathartic for you (if that's boxing, do that instead). You need to blow of steam somehow, and exercise has been long proven to have great effects on stress!
I very much understand the desire to work, make the best of the situation and feel like we are somewhat in control. But panic working is not being in control. It's a ratrace where the biggest victory is not ending up with a burn-out. That's not much of a prize...
So make sure you have other things going in your life besides work. Reach out to your supervisors or to friends in similar situations and do ask for help and support. These are difficult times, but we will manage!