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Thriving Through the Ongoing Pandemic

Those who will be able to look back when the pandemic is finally over and feel they did more than just make it through have several attributes in common.

As the pandemic moves through year two, would you say you are thriving or barely surviving? Or are you hanging in there, treading water but feeling worn down or worn out? Is thriving even possible, when life has been so disrupted by a persistent virus, when we’ve experienced heartache and loss, worried about our future and the future of our democracy? I believe that we can thrive, especially when we do so together. The individuals who will look back when the pandemic is finally over and feel they did more than just make it through will have several attributes in common. 

I’m framing each attribute as a call to action starting with the verb “stay” for a reason. Back when the first positive cases of COVID-19 were identified in the United States, concern was mixed with hope that protective measures being adopted would successfully limit the spread of the coronavirus. We rallied around the need to “flatten the curve.” (The office is closed and everyone will be working from home for the next several weeks? Okay, we can do this. It’s not ideal... and it’s so sudden... but we’ll figure it out.) Despite rosy predictions espoused by some leaders about how quickly we could return to the daily lives we were used to, weeks extended to months and entire seasons as the virus extended its reach across the globe and into communities throughout the country. In March 2020, we had hoped this race to extinguish the coronavirus would be a short-distance sprint. Instead, it has become a long-distance marathon. “Stay” is a reminder to re-calibrate your mindset about where the finish line is and pace yourself to go the distance. 

At the time of this writing, two factors make it likely that the pandemic will go on through most, if not all, of 2021. First, several variants of the coronavirus have been discovered which could reduce the efficacy of the new vaccines. Practically, this means the percentage of the world’s population that will need to be vaccinated or develop natural immunity in order to halt the pandemic will increase from 70% to somewhere in the range of 80-85%. Furthermore, the longer the pandemic goes on, the greater the probability new variants develop which may reduce the efficacy of current vaccines. 

The second factor presents a serious challenge: A sizable number of individuals are skeptical that the recently-developed vaccines are safe so they are either unwilling to get vaccinated at all or they are taking a wait-and-see approach for now. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 20 percent of U.S. adults surveyed do not intend to get vaccinated or will only get vaccinated if it’s required. This resistance will make it more difficult to vaccinate such a high percentage of the population. 

I wish it were not so, but it may take a personal encounter with the virus—the loss of a family member, friend, or acquaintance to COVID-19, or witnessing the long-term negative health consequences that some people are experiencing—before people change their minds about getting vaccinated or complying with public health measures of mask-wearing, hand washing, and social distancing. 

The bottom line is that it’s going to take some time to stop the pandemic. We can see a distant light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, but we’re still in the tunnel and have a ways to go before we come back out into the light again. 

With all of this in mind, what can we learn about how to thrive through the pandemic?

Stay Realistically Optimistic

Our mindset fuels our actions. You’ve likely witnessed how differently a person with a “glass half full” perspective approaches an issue than a member of the same team who is a “glass half empty” type. Thrivers through the pandemic will maintain a realistic sense of optimism and communicate their rationale to others whom they influence. Their optimism is not wishful thinking and pie in the sky; it’s grounded and based on reputable information. Thrivers keep the expectation of a brighter future in front of people while not minimizing the very sobering time we are in right now.

Pfizer/BioNtech and Moderna developed highly effective vaccines, put them through multiple stages of testing, obtained approval for use and began manufacturing millions of doses in less than one year. And these aren’t the only vaccines in use now. What the biomedical community has done is astounding considering previously it took four years, best case, to develop a vaccine. While variants of the virus will continue to emerge, it appears that some of the available vaccines will still provide relatively high levels of protection from these variants 

This is very good news. The more people who are vaccinated, the fewer people the virus can infect and the fewer people those infected might expose to the virus—most importantly, the fewer people who will die or suffer long-term effects. With these vaccine breakthroughs, there is reason to be realistically optimistic that the pandemic’s days are indeed numbered. Still, I believe it may take most or all of 2021 before we can return to a semblance of normal.

There’s another reason for tempered optimism.History has shown that past catastrophes produced breakthroughs that improved the lives of many people. As Derek Thompson wrote in his inspiring article, “How Cities Come Back from Disaster,” in The Atlantic:

“A major crisis has a way of exposing what is broken and giving a new generation of leaders a chance to build something better. Sometimes the ramifications of their choices are wider than one might think.”

Thompson goes on to show that the cholera epidemic of 1832 contributed to breakthroughs in understanding that vastly improved public health and life expectancy, Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871 led to improvements in fireproof building materials that sparked urban growth, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers in New York City in 1911 led to safety protections and reasonable work hours for workers. 

As you look out on the horizon, what do you see as post-traumatic growth lessons and opportunities that will arise out of our collective experience of the pandemic? In the 2nd edition of Connection Culture, updated and expanded in 2020, I argue there is a lot to be optimistic about. I’m optimistic that the pandemic will increase people’s appreciation for the importance of human connection, including in the workplace. It follows that because connection helps individuals and organizations thrive, greater levels of connection will boost nationwide productivity, innovation and health. 

Stay Focused on Your Top 3-5 Priorities

Have you noticed a change in your energy level during the pandemic? Perhaps you have less stamina throughout the day or your sleep quality may be diminished. When the brain senses a change in the social environment, it may perceive it as a threat. With all of the change directly or indirectly related to the pandemic, your brain has had a lot to assess and process during the last year. As a result, it may be drawing on even more energy these days as well as sending signals to the body’s fight-or-flight systems to be at the ready. If we have less available energy to consciously expend, we need to be strategic about how we use it. 

Thrivers through the pandemic will maintain focus on what’s important and what they can do well in the current environment. This is a good time to be laser-focused on identifying, or re-evaluating, your top 3-5 priorities for the year and making progress toward achieving those goals. Again, pace yourself. Don’t try to do too much. Think about quality over quantity. 

Stay Connected

If you know me or my work, you saw this one coming. Staying connected to family, friends, colleagues and community provides the foundation to do everything else well and to experience joy in life. Past articles I’ve written have offered practical ways to stay relationally connected during the pandemic. If you haven’t read the new edition of Connection Culture yet, you should, for it will help equip you to be a better connector, to influence others about the importance of connection and perils of human disconnection, and to cultivate cultures of connection that will help you thrive through the pandemic, and beyond. 

With these three attributes in mind, what actions can you take in the next few days? Do you need to verbalize your realistic optimism to a certain colleague or the whole team? Does your project list need a fresh look and greater focus? Are there old friends with whom you could reconnect? Are there clients you could call with no agenda other than a sincere “How are you doing?” By staying realistically optimistic, staying focused on a few priorities that you can do well, and staying connected, you are likely to come out on the other side of the pandemic in a better place.