Managers as caregivers during COVID

All of us are facing one challenge right now, but many are facing several. How managers handle that will dictate their post-COVID work relationships

Blurry grass background. Dies that spell out M O D E with green sides of the die that say Normal and red sides that say Panic
Blurry grass background. Dies that spell out M O D E with green sides of the die that say Normal and red sides that say Panic

Don’t hang out your privilege like wet underwear on a clothesline by assuming what works for you, works for everyone

Everyone moves at their pace and has their challenges, especially at a time like this. Any assumption that everyone is facing the same challenges as you are and reacting the same way you is likely to backfire.

Assumption: Everyone has unlimited high-speed internet access.

Reality: Many people share living spaces with others who are working or schooling from home — increasing bandwidth outside of US city centers ranches from shockingly expensive to downright impossible.

Best Response: Care for your coworkers and subordinates by helping them figure out what is available to them and how to pay for it. If high-speed internet is not possible, shift them to tasks where they can be productive without it.

Assumption: Everyone has a room other than a bedroom they can use for video calls.

Reality: Shared living spaces where all residents are video conferencing for school and work make it hard not to step on the toes of housemates.

Best Response: Care for your coworkers and subordinates by helping them set backgrounds (without motion please) for video calls, or supporting a “video optional” environment if they choose. Regardless, don’t call people out for having calls from their bedrooms.

Assumption: Everyone wants the benefit and freedom of working from home.

Reality: Others may have different work styles and are more productive in the office, even if they aren’t facing the shared living space challenges identified above.

Best Response: Care for your coworkers and subordinates by helping them figure out how to become more productive at home. One or more of timeboxing, noise reduction, fixed schedules, or taking “moving around” and mindfulness breaks might help.

Assumption: People working from home feel a sense of camaraderie getting together for large videoconference meetings.

Reality: Some people would rather get announcements through email than attend yet another videoconference call.

Best response: When appropriate, send out an email *and* do the call, but don’t make call attendance mandatory.

Assumption: Everyone has free time and should be motivated to lose weight, take on a new hobby, learn a new language, exercise, or “reflect,” “be grateful,” or become a “better person.”

Reality: Some of us are just trying to get through this with our physical and mental health intact.

Best response: Don’t talk about how great this time has been for you to gain perspective or find yourself. Many others don’t have that luxury.

There are three groups (with several subcategories in each group) of people that are getting hit particularly hard by shelter-in-place. They include:

  • “Sandwich” employees (those taking care of elderly parents, homeschooled children, or both) are getting hit exceptionally hard in these shelter-in-place times as their attention fragments in multiple demanding directions.
  • Single parents who have to be the educator and the employee simultaneously. This also applies to two-income families where both parents remain working.
  • Employees who have WFH jobs may be facing financial impact because partners who are struggling with being furloughed or outright laid off.
  • Divorced parents with visitation rights are being prevented from seeing their children other than via FaceTime.
  • Extroverts, especially those living alone, are being hit hard, as they struggle with engaging at the same level as before COVID-19 without the satisfaction that in-person contact provides.
  • Groups that always get hit disproportionately harder in the workplace which includes LGBTQ+, people of color, women, veterans, people on visas, people without college degrees, and outsider age groups (younger people in workplaces that skew older, or older people in workplaces that skew younger).
  • People lacking financial resources to “stock up” on items in advance or as they become available (despite sometimes being labeled as “essential workers”).

The second group of people that are also getting blindsided by COVID-19 is those with existing disabilities. They include:

  • Those who need to use assistive technology to order online and shelter in place are being discriminated against more than ever both before COVID-19 and now.
  • Those with undisclosed medical conditions are seriously struggling. Many are living in fear of being forced to disclose their health conditions at work, making a tough WFH situation that much harder. I’ve heard from those with chronic depression, anxiety, hearing loss, vision loss, and autism (just to name a few disabilities) facing this exact situation over the past couple of weeks.
  • People with “elective” medical treatments that have been postponed, including organ transplants, vision/hearing restoration, gastric related, infertility, or gender affirmation. Delayed medical treatment is forcing these individuals to live with the side effects of a condition where the fix is known but can’t be obtained. Speaking from personal experience that is very, very hard, and can lead to situational clinical depression.
  • Those with both disclosed and undisclosed medical conditions have had their routines up-ended. People with autism are being hit particularly hard because rely on structure in the form of set routines to manage what they find to be otherwise unbearable chaos. In my case, the amount of time I am saving in not commuting (an hour and 16 minutes) has been destroyed by my need for extra sleep because of arthritis flare-ups as well as all of the extra cooking and cleaning (which total about 3 1/2 hours per day). No, I am not learning a new language at the moment, or exercising more, and I will be lucky to get my accessibility book finished on schedule.
  • People who have recovered from addiction are more likely to relapse. They may also think about relapsing or develop new and different addictions as coping mechanisms.
  • People with medical PTSD may find their conditions being triggered by the constant stream of unavoidable coronavirus news.

New potentially disabling issues that isolated individuals can face from forced sheltering-in-place include:

  • Short term memory issues, which can severely impact learning new skills.
  • Distorted sense of time.
  • Nausea caused by the sense of movement on video calls.
  • Executive dysfunction, characterized by not getting done something that you know you need to do.
  • Disordered eating, which can present as either eating too much or too little. Combined with the distorted sense of time, disordered eating can be problematic. In the first three weeks of the pandemic, I lost 7 lbs. In the second three weeks, I’ve gained it all back.
  • Dissociation, where you feel like there’s a plexiglass wall between you and everything and everyone else.
  • Intrusive thoughts, where you get stuck in a bad mental loop and can’t break out of it. Mine right now is worry about future insulin supply. :(
  • Inability to make decisions, resulting in disproportionately intense distress in attempting to force yourself to do so.
  • Auditory processing disorder (APD), aggravated by stray noise either coming from your household or the household of someone on a call with you. APD can get to the point where you can’t finish a thought because the combination of sounds is so distracting.
  • Misophonia, hatred of sounds that previously didn’t bother you such as motors whirring, forks scraping, or plastic bags rustling. Misophonia can be the result of your brain listening subconsciously harder to understand people on calls, so everything sounds louder (not just the voices on the calls).

Even if you don’t experience any of these issues, accept ALL of them at face value.

They are legit, even if they aren’t happening to you.

Now think of the intersection of those three categories.

Anyone can belong in multiple subcategories in the first group (sandwich caregivers, extroverts, single parents, existing etc.)

Can also be a member of multiple subcategories the second group (existing disabilities getting worse)

and also be a member of multiple subcategories in the third group (experience new disabilities)

I belong to a total of eleven subcategories listed above, though this really is a “contest” no one wants to win.

For every group of people who *benefit* from change

- There will be a second group of people that will receive no benefit

- and a third group of people who will be negatively impacted

Failing to recognize this fact when you are in the first group will make you appear tone-deaf as a leader at best, and a privileged a$$hole at worst.

You, your subordinates, and your peers are NOT working from home.

- You all are at home

- Trying to get through a pandemic

- Attempting to get work done

One day at a time, folks. And be kind.

Written by

Accessibility Architect @ VMware. W3C Silver, ITI & IAAP GLC committees. Degrees in CS, law, business. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter.

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