Sunel’s Blog | Running on empty

Sunél Veldtman, | 02 April 2021

It’s been a year since we entered that first three-week lockdown to flatten the curve.

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a blog, “So really, how are you feeling right now? It was a blog about rest. If I’m honest with myself, I didn’t follow through on my own intentions. It’s a year later, and I feel the effects of a year of toil – working longer and longer hours under highly stressful conditions. Hard work and long hours are ok, but they are not good when anxiety and stress become your drivers, rather than visionary energy.

The link between productivity and stress is not a straight line – initially, stress is a good motivator to raise productivity, but then as stress starts taking its toll on wellbeing, output levels off. Eventually, output falls off a cliff as stress levels soar.

We are facing unprecedented levels of societal stress. I’m sure it’s not news to you. On a personal level, we have faced death and isolation. We have faced financial ruin. We have lost connection. We met isolation. If we didn’t, then we felt guilty.

Not all of us have faced the same challenges or has been hit in the same way by the pandemic – it’s one of the most difficult aspects of it. Some have lost too much to bear, others have barely been impacted.

Just this weekend, a friend shared that his business has not had a single contract for more than a year. In contrast, we have found many new clients in the past year. How do I even respond? What words can help when there is anguish drawn on his face?

We must be honest about our individual and collective stress. Long after we have beaten the virus, we may still suffer the long haul symptoms of burnout. Irritability, sleeplessness, depression, anxiety, and anger are just some of the symptoms we may battle in the future. Poor attention, concentration and memory problems could also occur. Some people may struggle to integrate into society again, even fearing social gatherings and normal personal interactions. Health authorities have warned about the long-lasting impact of the pandemic on mental health worldwide. Long periods of low mental wellbeing can permanently damage mental health, just like long periods of poor physical care can lead to permanent damage to your body.

When I started to write this blog, it was meant to be my last one before going on a bucket list five-day hike. Now, it has been cancelled due to Covid-restrictions. I was looking forward to the rest, especially the mental down-time.  It’s just one example of the countless disappointments, challenges and re-adjustments we’ve had to face over the past year. Normally, such a disappointment would last for a moment for me, but now, because of the challenges of the last year, it’s just one disappointment too much. I know I’ll bounce back but my reaction has shown me how low my resilience is, and I believe how low our collective resilience has dropped.

We cannot simply ignore this. The unpredictability of the pandemic is likely to be with us for this year and probably well into next year. We must protect our mental resources and resilience, even to the detriment of drive and success. Perhaps we should change our definition of success – if we pull through this with our mental wellbeing intact, could that be a goal? The alternative is that we tick off a few notches on our success ladder but find our wellbeing permanently damaged as a result.  Perhaps we should dare to talk about lower targets or pushing out project deadlines? Perhaps we could make space and time for recovery and rest? And if you have not personally suffered from pandemic stress, perhaps you could make space for those who are struggling?

It starts with acknowledging the elephant in the room. We’re running on empty. It cannot end there.  We must also do something about it.

I’m taking a break for a few weeks from blogging. I’ll find somewhere else to let my thoughts and feet wander over the holidays and will be back with new energy and insights!

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