In these coronavirus-impacted times, fatigue seems to be a near-universal experience. Many people are wondering why they feel so tired when they’ve just had weeks of reduced activities and travel. But coronavirus fatigue is real. And the good news is that you can take charge of your energy and wellbeing! Read on to find out more.
What’s causing it?
While we are all unique, there are several common factors contributing to the feeling of fatigue:
- Disrupted routines and working environment
- Physiological changes
- Background worry or anxiety about the current situation
- The tools we are using to stay connected
You might like to check out my previous post on stress which explains how it can affect your body and mind.
Disrupted routines and working environment
Our brains are lazy and love routine. No matter whether you’re working from home or you’re going into your workplace, your routines and the environment have changed. How?
- Throughout lockdown, whether working from home or outside the home, our usual schedules have been disrupted, which takes mental adjustment.
- The increased focus on hygiene requirements creates mental “noise”. Prior to Covid-19, most of us never thought consciously about handwashing, touching our faces, or wiping down desks, door handles, keyboards etc.
- Working from home means a different working environment – you might not have access to the same physical or electronic resources, so you need to find workarounds.
- Working from home also means no commute. A commute can give us mental space to let go of the day and get ready to take up home life. So now we’re making that transition ‘on the fly’ from table to kitchen.
- Parents who never planned to homeschool have been crisis-schooling, juggling kids, workspaces, schoolwork, and their day job. And that mental juggling contributes to the sense of fatigue.
Almost everyone I’ve spoken to during the various stages of lockdown has mentioned this. We’re experiencing changes to:
- how much or often we’re eating and drinking,
- what we’re eating and drinking,
- exercise routines (type, intensity, frequency etc.)
- access to relaxation activities (the closure of bars, restaurants cafes, access to activities like boating and massages were nixed until Level 2)
- activities that support our physical and mental wellbeing, such as bodywork therapies, counselling, doctor’s consultations etc.
Background worry or anxiety
There are two new topics for our brains to worry about: the virus itself, and the impact of how we are dealing with the virus. Even when we’re not thinking directly about these issues, our brain hums along in the background, consuming physical energy and mental resources in a way that we aren’t used to experiencing.
The virus itself
Naturally, we are concerned about ourselves or our loved ones catching the virus. This can lead to hypervigilance, where our brain overprocesses our environment looking for threats like coughs or sneezes, touching surfaces in public spaces, and the physical proximity of people outside our bubble.
The impact of how we are dealing with the virus
Lockdown limitations drastically reduced the amount of in-real-life face-to-face connection we are having. As social animals, this influences our state of mind and sense of wellbeing. Even with the relaxation to Level 2, we aren’t yet back to ‘normal’ socialising.
Many are facing changes in income or job security. This affects our sense of safety and keeps our brains in a hypervigilant state.
Around 1 in 5 New Zealanders live with mental illness or addiction, and the current situation can intensify distress. There is help available – please refer to the Mental Health Support Services section below.
The tools we are using to stay connected
While the novelty of checking out our workmates’ homes and playing with virtual backgrounds got us through the initial weeks of the lockdown, “Zoom fatigue” is real (and not just limited to Zoom – it includes any video meeting solution).
Seeing lots of faces close together overcooks our brains as it tries to monitor them simultaneously. And there’s also a background awareness that we are on camera and constantly under observation, so subconsciously we are self-monitoring to make sure we look good.
In many cases, we have transferred face-to-face meeting agendas directly to the online forum without adjusting for the extra brain-drain. Add in back-to-back meetings, and it starts to feel like “death by Zoom”.
The email version of the “desk fly-by”
We’re used to being able to do the “desk fly-by”, where we drop by someone’s desk to ask a quick question. Doing that not only got us our answer but also gave us a chance for social connection. Now we turn that question into an email, filling up inboxes left, right and centre. As the number of unread emails in our inboxes, and unanswered emails we are waiting for, increases, so do our stress levels. And we don’t have the offsetting benefit of a moment of social connection surrounding the question.
How do we fix this?
Self-care needs to be part of every leader’s toolkit. Read my previous post on self-care for tips on creating an effective self-care plan to support your sense of wellbeing and flourishing.
Build a new routine and working environment
Our brain responds really well to triggers. Try these:
- Set up a specific area for working, and only sit there when you are working. Step away from it when you are taking a break.
- If you can’t leave it permanently set up, try to keep the layout the same when you set it up again.
- Try “dressing up” as if you were going into the office.
- Create a new ritual to replace the commute and help you switch between work and home – play a particular song, do some star jumps, walk to the letterbox, change your clothes. Anything that helps create a mental break between the different parts of your day.
And create structure for your day and week:
- Set aside specific times for rest breaks. Block these in your calendar so that they show as “busy”.
- Move away from your work area during the break. Bonus points if you can get outside for some fresh air and to move your body.
- Ask your boss and key colleagues to check your calendar before sending a meeting request.
- If a meeting request conflicts with your scheduled break time, decline it and offer a couple of alternative times that suit your schedule (unless it would be a career-limiting move to say no!).
- Block out half- or full-day sessions if you need to tackle a big project or need a break to deal with the volume of meetings and emails appearing in your inbox.
Michael Pollan said it best: “Eat good food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But that last bit doesn’t mean unlimited chips and popcorn! Nourishing your body will help you fight fatigue. Aim for:
- A rainbow of vegetables and fruit on your plate across the week.
- The best quality protein you can afford, and including protein in as many meals as you can.
- Good fats in every meal.
- Plenty of water throughout the day, especially if you start to feel grumpy, tired or excessively hungry (assuming that you’re eating well at mealtimes).
- And most importantly: breaking the rules once in a while!
- Set aside time to exercise – book it in your calendar.
- It might look a little different to your usual – a walk around the block, stair-climbing inside the house, laps around the house, or putting music on the stereo or your headphones and having a 10-minute dance party for one (or with your kids or bubble-buddies).
- Do any movement that you enjoy – stretch, wiggle, jump, run, stretch, walk. Whatever feels good for your body and soul.
- Long-duration exercise (like distance running or cycling) might feel a bit overwhelming right now, and that’s OK. Just keep moving – eventually, the spark for the longer format will return (if that’s your thing).
If you can’t or don’t want to venture out, find alternative ways to incorporate activities that you enjoy:
- Massage: Lie on a tennis ball and roll it around to give your back and neck muscles a gentle workout.
- Stretch: tense muscles need time to soften and relax. Do some gentle, slow stretching (it should never hurt!) each day.
- Meditation, yoga, pilates: Look online or in your app store for classes and tutorials.
- Reading: Grab a paper book, or download an e-book or audiobook (check your local library for free stuff). Bonus points for fiction that gets you out of your head!
- Ask your providers if they can provide online consultations. Some are offering face-to-face services if they adhere to specific guidelines.
- Take your supplements and medications on schedule (and regularly check with your providers to ensure that that there aren’t any interactions between supplements and medications you are taking).
Background anxiety and worry
If we worry about what we can’t control, we won’t change anything. As much as possible, concentrate on what you can control:
- Who you spend time with, and how much time you spend with them. You might have a preference for keeping your social group small right now. And you might need more alone time than usual. That’s totally OK. Just because you can see more people now doesn’t mean you have to.
- Cultivate positive emotions – watch a comedy show, tell some silly jokes, turn a chore into a game, spend time talking to a loved one. Positive emotions like joy, contentment and love “undo” the effects of negative emotions like fear, anger and frustration.
- Take sensible precautions when out in public: wash your hands or use sanitiser regularly, and keep a good distance from people you don’t know.
- Support your immune system with good sleep, nutrition and exercise. If your fatigue sneaks up on you during the day, see if you can structure in a quick nap or relaxing meditation – even 10 minutes can make a significant difference to your energy levels.
- Monitor what you’re taking in – news, books, movies and TV programmes can affect your levels of stress. Deliberately choose some “positive” sources like comedies, good news stories, or comforting old favourite TV programmes or movies.
- Apply for any subsidies or financial support that you are entitled to. It’s OK to receive help; that’s what it’s there for.
- Maintain social contact with friends and family – whether seeing them in person or via video or phone call. Hearing their voices and seeing their faces can help ease a sense of isolation. Go for a “virtual walk” with a loved one who isn’t nearby – chat on the phone as you walk in your own neighbourhood.
- Choose your words – instead of “social distancing”, say “physical distancing”. It might seem like a small thing, but there’s plenty of research that shows how our words shape our experience of the world.
- If you are experiencing mental distress, please seek support right away. Refer to the Mental Health Support Services section below.
The tools we are using to stay connected
- Decline invitations to unnecessary meetings (this isn’t just a tip for Zoom, this can be a life rule!)
- Ask for shorter meeting agendas, with more frequent breaks (minimum of 10 minutes an hour, no continuous sessions longer than 90 minutes, and if so, a longer break).
- Turn off videos or use screen sharing to limit the amount of visual processing required.
- In screen-sharing mode, minimise the video thumbnails to show only the speaker (or no one).
- Hide your self-view so you aren’t constantly monitoring what you look like!
Emails taking the place of desk fly-bys
- Do you really need someone else to answer the question? (we often ask others because it’s convenient to use someone else’s brainpower instead of our own!).
- If you really need to ask someone and have only one question, an email is probably OK (include a timeframe for when you’d like a response and make sure that deadline is reasonable – err on the side of more time).
- If you have several questions, ask the recipient how they’d like to get them. You could aggregate them to one email, or set up a phone or video call to go over everything in one slot. Check if they want the questions before the call so they’ve got time to look up the answers.
Too long; didn’t read?
We are experiencing change on a massive scale, in both our inner and outer worlds. This level of change can affect us deeply, leading to fatigue and other negative experiences.
You have the power to create positive habits and take action to boost your mood, immune system, and physical health. Reach out for support. Treat yourself kindly. And always wash your hands 😊
How are you looking after yourself?
I’d love to hear what’s working for you! Please share your tips and techniques in the comments.
Mental health support services – New Zealand
Information in this section is provided by the Ministry of Health on their Mental Health Services page
If you or someone you know needs urgent help, call 111 immediately.
- Free call or text 1737 any time to talk to a trained counsellor.
- The Depression helpline – 0800 111 757
- Alcohol drug helpline – 0800 787 797
- Gambling helpline – 0800 654 655
- Healthline – 0800 611 116 – to get help from a registered nurse 24/7.
- Lifeline – 0800 543 354
- Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Children and young people
- Free call or text 1737 any time to talk to a trained counsellor.
- The Depression helpline – 0800 111 757.
- Healthline – 0800 611 116 to get help from a registered nurse 24/7.
- Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or online chat.
- What’s Up – 0800 942 8787, (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, 1pm–10pm and weekends, 3pm–10pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.
(all links open in a new tab)
- Michael Pollan – How to Eat
- National Geographic – ‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens
- Psychology Today – Zoom Fatigue: Don’t Let Video Meetings Zap Your Energy
- Health and Disability Commission – Key findings in New Zealand’s mental health and addiction services (2018)
- Barbara Frederickson – The Pursuit of Happiness