By Michelle Graff
I’m into week seven/day 40-something of being confined to my apartment in Brooklyn, and it’s getting harder.

Certain parts of the country have started to open up again. According to an NBC News report aired Tuesday night, 10 states are partially reopened while residents of seven more will see their stay-at-home orders expire this weekend.

But here in New York City, I think we’ve got another month, maybe even more, to go.

Pandemic superstar Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this past Sunday that by his estimation, parts of the state could begin to open up by May 15, though the “downstate” region—the city, Westchester County and Long Island—likely won’t start reopening until later.

By my estimation, I don’t picture myself getting on the subway to head back into National Jeweler’s offices in the Financial District until after Fourth of July.

So … what to do until then? How do we continue to stay sane, and even happy? And, how do those who are starting to get back to “normal” life readjust after weeks in isolation?

A few weeks ago, I sat in on a webinar on managing stress hosted by Jewelers of America that featured Jay Sandys, vice president of organizational development at Corporate Counseling Associates Inc.

Sandys is CCA’s vice president of organizational development, and he has a Ph.D. in clinical social work and a private psycho-therapy practice.

In the webinar, he gave some of the same advice that’s been repeated ad nauseum throughout this crisis—focus on what you can control, take it one day at a time, breathe, establish a routine, etc.

This is not to say this is bad advice or that it’s not worth following; it just doesn’t bear repeating again in detail.

He also, however, covered a few areas I hadn’t considered or read much about, and he was kind enough to thoroughly field a follow-up question from me: How do we get used to each other again, and feel safe?

Establish boundaries and stick to them.

While the initial concern with people working from home might have been slacking off—e.g., relaxing in front of the TV all day watching Netflix instead of doing their jobs—many people (including my staff and myself, it feels like) are working harder than they were before.

It seems like the days never end. You’re up and on the computer earlier than normal and/or logging off later.

You’re checking your email compulsively, and people are calling your cell phone at all hours and on your off days, adding to the what-day-of-the-week-is-it malaise in which we’re all mired.

But you shouldn’t do that, Sandys said.

You have to set boundaries around when and how long you’re working, and you and your employees have to have clearly defined periods of time in which to relax and recharge.

“If you can keep your hours to some kind of schedule, that can be really helpful,” he said.

Be the kind of leader you want your boss to be.

As a manager of three, I will say that this has not been the easiest experience. I have no training in how to manage a staff of editors who are under lockdown, forced to remain isolated in small apartments for weeks on end.

Sandys, though, offered good advice that I’ve been trying to apply around here.

First, visualize: What kind of leadership would you want to be receiving right now?

Try to keep things as normal and possible and communicate with employees.

Let them know you care but also be clear about your expectations for them, which should, he added, take into consideration the situation.

Managers should also be genuine and transparent.

That doesn’t mean, Sandys said, that you have to share every thought or concern with your employees, but you should connect with them regularly, and be up front about the current circumstances.

He recommended having regularly scheduled meetings that have an agenda and a time limit that you adhere to; don’t get on a call with no plans and go on for hours. Encourage employees to participate, and to share their issues and concerns with you.

He also recommended repeating a summary of the conversation back to employees so all parties are clear on what was said or, even, following up with an email.

When an employee gets short with you or has an outburst, Sandys said it might not be worth addressing if it’s just one time, especially if its uncharacteristic of that person.

If it persists, then address it in an empathetic manner: “What’s going on with you? You’re not usually like this,” or, “I know you’re going through a hard time.”

He recommend employees approach their bosses in the same way if there’s a pattern of uncharacteristic outbursts.

“They might need help too,” he said of managers. “They’re humans.”(Ahem.)

Limit your time on social media.

For me, this is solid advice whether there’s a pandemic or not.

Social media can be a fun way to communicate and discover, but it can also be a huge time suck and, as Sandys pointed out, turn nasty and negative.

This makes it a less-than-ideal way to expend your mental energies when you’re already coping with being stressed out, frustrated, bored, scared or some combination thereof.

“I’m not a big fan, personally, of Facebook,” he said on the webinar. “I think it can absolutely be misused.”

Sandys also pointed out that while it is called “social” media, most platforms actually offer limited opportunity for meaningful discourse.

Seeing what hundreds of people, some of whom you don’t even know, are doing at one time is not the same as making a one-on-one connection.

He advocated FaceTime or Zoom, which are more like a good old-fashioned, reach-out-and-touch-someone phone call, over sites like Facebook, Instagram, etc.

Have a reintegration plan in place.

During the webinar, Sandys said having a plan in place and a mission “can really be helpful in terms of mental well-being and resilience,” and that includes a plan for reopening your store.

The plan will need to flexible and will need to be reviewed often.

Here’s what it needs to address, Sandys said via email.

— Under what circumstances can employees be allowed to continue working remotely?
— What is the ramp-up plan, meaning will all employees come back full time, or will that process be gradual based on work volume?
— If employees need to return to work (e.g., in a retail situation) is it possible to stagger their days or hours?
— What safety precautions will be in place, e.g., wearing masks and gloves, social distancing practices, cleaning of the workspace, only allowing a certain number of customers in at a time, etc.?
— Is there a protocol in place if an employee feels that another employee is not following the safety guidelines or seems to be sick?

To add to what Sandys wrote, please check out this article I wrote last week that covers the legal issues employers need to be aware of when employees return to work. It’s also worth noting that each municipality will have its own regulations for things like opening hours and capacity limitations, so be sure you are versed in those as well.

“Whatever the reintegration plan will be, I think it’s crucial that: 1) the plan is clearly communicated to employees, and 2) employees have a chance to weigh in, give their thoughts and opinions, and get acknowledgement that they are being heard,” Sandys said via email.

“It’s also critical that employees know that their companies care about them and are offering resources to assist them psychologically if they are distressed.”

Get help if you need it.

Uncertain, anxious, fearful, frustrated, lonely, optimistic are familiar emotions for a lot of us right now.

People also might find they are eating and/or sleeping more or less, drinking more, procrastinating, having difficulty concentrating or memory issues, crying, overreacting to unexpected problems, or “overdoing things,” like fixating on the news or shopping online compulsively.

Sandys said all of the above are “normal” reactions to this abnormal situation.

So, then, how do you know when you’ve gone beyond “normal” and might need help?

Sandys said there needs to be a pattern of behavior that lasts over weeks, not just a bad day here and there, and that inhibits your ability to function.

If this is you and you think you need help, there are a number of things you can do even though getting a regular doctor’s appointment is not an option for everyone right now.

Many doctors, Sandys pointed out, are doing telemedicine, or you can contact your insurance company to see what is covered and available.

In addition, he said every therapist he knows does remote sessions nowadays, and people shouldn’t assume therapists are all booked up and won’t be able to fit them into their schedules.

He said right now, his patient load is only about 60-70 percent of what it once was.

Final Thoughts

I’ll end with just a few notes before I leave you to practice good mental health habits.

The JA webinar with Sandys was one in a series my employer has been hosting throughout this crisis. You can the full line-up of upcoming webinars, as well as access recordings of past ones, on the JA website.

And, I am hosting my own webinar series now called “My Next Question.” My next guests on “My Next Question” will be Sherry and Peter Smith.

You can catch my interview with Mr. and Mrs. Smith this coming Tuesday, May 5 at 2 p.m. EDT.

Registration is available here.

Thanks for reading, and be well.

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