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The ABC of managing our wellbeing in an uncertain world

By Dr Kevin Teoh, Chartered Psychologist and lecturer in Organisational Psychology, Birkbeck, University of London


In the current pandemic where everything is uncertain and the world of work is completely different, what can we do to maintain our mental wellbeing? How do we manage any worries or feelings of anxiety that we might be having?

If things seem uncertain or difficult in this time, or you are wondering how to get through this time, remember the three ABCs of our basic psychological needs – Autonomy, Belonging and Competence. Understanding what they are and working towards meeting them can go a long way in maintaining our mental wellbeing and giving us some control in our lives.

However, before I expand on these ABCs it is essential to first make two points. The first is that we are living and working through what essentially is a crisis. To expect yourself, or the people around you, to perform at similar levels to before is simply unrealistic and unfair. Be kind and compassionate to ourselves and others.

Second, our human minds evolved to worry. Our ancestors were naturally primed to be on the lookout for anything that might hurt or even kill us. Therefore, thinking about worst-case scenarios or replaying negative events are ways our minds try to keep us safe. As such, any worried and anxious thoughts in this current pandemic are perfectly normal.

Coming back to the ABCs of our three basic psychological needs, how we meet them doesn’t matter. This means that depending on our circumstances we can take actions that are most relevant to us. I’ll describe each one below, providing examples of them in work and non-work settings.

A – Autonomy

This first need for us to work towards is autonomy, which represents having freedom, influence and control over what we are doing. In this current time where many of us are restricted to our homes and where our employment status is uncertain, it might seem that we have much less autonomy than before. This can be overwhelming if we get stuck in our thoughts and worries. But it’s important to realise that you do have control, and the fact that you are reading this now means you decided on something and did that.

Although challenging for many, the changes to work may present as an opportunity to craft elements of our work to be more conducive to us. This could include working hours, roles, reporting or team structures and technology systems. For those thinking about changing or needing to look for new work, taking proactive behaviours to job search (e.g. speaking to recruiters), improving our employability (e.g. signing up for an online course), or building up and using professional networks are some examples of how we can exert autonomy.

Using our autonomy also means controlling the boundaries between our home and work lives, which can be very fluid at the moment, as many of us work from home. Carve out and negotiate with colleagues, family members and ourselves as to when and where you are available for work and home roles.

Beyond work, the importance of setting a routine is based on us exercising control over ourselves and providing structure to our day. In particular, build in time for important self-care behaviours, such as having sufficient sleep, eating healthy and staying physically active. Making a to-do list can be very useful. You can acknowledge your anxieties by listing all the things that worry us and separating them into that which you can control and that which you cannot – and then focusing on what you can control and work on that.

For example, the constant barrage of news around the Coronavirus can easily draw us in. In most instances, there is little you can do about the news content, but you can control what, who and when we tune in. So be selective and focus on reputable sources, mute or limit certain social media channels and be purposeful in switching off the news.

B – Belonging

As humans, we have a fundamental need to belong. This means feeling connected, valued and supported by others. With all this talk about distancing, what we actually need is physical distancing and not social distancing. More than ever we need to look at maintaining our social ties as best that we can.

Broadly speaking, we need to be able to receive both emotional and informational support. For emotional support, reach out to others around you to share any concerns or worries that you might have. Whatever you are struggling with, chances are that others are feeling the same way so you need to know that you are not alone. Ask others how they are doing and what they need. Equally, it’s important to share joy and happiness with the people around and even more mundane and superficial discussions about the weather or that television programme you are binge-watching help foster your relationships.

Informational support is about the more practical support that we need. In a work setting, this can include knowing who to approach for help with accessing software or databases remotely or perhaps having someone who can help you work through the various government support schemes. It also includes support for the everyday personal aspects, such as getting your groceries done or fulfilling your caring responsibilities.

So consider who in your family, friend and professional networks you can reach out to for emotional and informational support. At the same time, if you can then think about who you know that may benefit from supporting them and then reach out to them. Technology is a huge asset here, with a growing number of social apps and websites available to facilitate this. Both online and offline groups are forming around various topics and issues that are worth seeking out, including hobbies, neighbourhood support schemes and professional networking opportunities.

C – Competence

The final need is competence, which refers to feeling that we can accomplish things and get things done. Of course, the current circumstances can make it difficult, but we need to be able to grow and learn as individuals, develop skills and gain knowledge. This links back to control and making plans. Regardless of your circumstances, there are things that you can do. Perhaps there are chores around the house and garden that you have been meaning to do. Learn new recipes, finish the book that you have always wanted, or get fitter if you can.

From a work point of view, there might be different skills that you need. You may have to learn a new way of working, how to navigate MS Teams or how to deliver material remotely. It is likely that how we pitch for work, advertise services and deliver work will change, with this comes opportunities to learn new skills and gain knowledge. There are numerous online webinars and resources from employers, suppliers or organisations or general offering training and support. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback, evaluate how tasks went and learn from them.

Take pride in the things you get done, even if they are quite little. In an uncertain world, all these little things do help reinforce our self-worth while also feeding into our need for autonomy.

Crucially, recognise that we are going through a different and difficult time. So if you are not as productive as before then that is okay. For many of us, work is upside down, we might have kids to look after at home, or have health issues that we’re struggling with. As such, you have to accept that you might not be able to get everything (or even anything!) done. Simply accepting that you got through the day can be good enough – the kids are fed and some work got done. Take the wins that you can and move on to the next day.

So to maintain your mental wellbeing, focus on how you can meet the ABC outlined above. Remember to be kind to yourself and others, to not be too self-critical, and that amidst all this uncertainty it is normal to feel stressed and worried. What exactly you do is dependent on your circumstances. But by recognising you can do something and making a plan (autonomy), involve others in the process (belong) and work towards it (competence) you are already working on the ABC.

About this author

Dr Kevin Teoh is a Chartered Psychologist and lecturer in Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. He is also the Executive Officer for the European Academy of Occupational Health Psychology. His primary research interests are around developing healthier workplaces, and the translation of research into practice, policy and public dissemination.

Kevin has a keen interest in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of workers, with a particular focus on the working conditions and wellbeing of healthcare workers. Kevin has collaborated extensively with the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, the Society of Occupational Medicine, the Royal Colleges and on projects in both the public and private sector.

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