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Employment

Jen Heemstra on building your resilience

C&EN advice columnist offers 4 tips on adapting to times of uncertainty

by Jen Heemstra
April 1, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 13

 

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Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Working from home is the new normal.

I’m driving into work on a Thursday in late March, and there’s no traffic, the parking lot is empty, and my building is nearly devoid of people. I’m here only to retrieve my computer so that I can settle in for what may be weeks­—or even months—of #WorkFromHome due to the coronavirus pandemic. As I approach campus, what I see brings tears to my eyes. Graduating seniors are about to leave campus for the last time. The dorms are closing in 3 days, and commencement has been canceled, but some students are nevertheless commemorating their last moments on campus by taking staged graduation photos at the scenic main entrance. This is not how they expected their undergraduate experience to culminate, yet they are making the most of it.

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They’re not the only ones. The next day I had the privilege of attending an online thesis defense. After 5 years of hard work, this is not how this student had anticipated celebrating the completion of her PhD. She is presenting from her living room to a grid of faces on a computer screen, yet she drew an audience that reached the triple digits­—more people than I’ve ever seen attend a defense.

At the same time, everyone in my group is grappling with the unexpected halting of the research that they are so passionate about. Their day-to-day routine is radically changed as they adapt to working remotely to develop project ideas, knowing that it could be months until they are allowed to go into lab and put those ideas into practice. Despite this, we are all learning new ways to work together and maintain community.

Resilience isn’t just about overcoming failure—it’s also about being flexible to adapt to the unexpected.

For me, the shutdown brings a sudden collision of my work life with the shared responsibility of homeschooling my children. Answering emails and editing manuscripts is now done in bursts of time in between helping my 11-year-old make slides and hone the grammar in his opinion essay. However, I’m also getting to enjoy eating lunch with my family and taking afternoon hikes together in our neighborhood nature preserve. It’s undoubtedly stressful. But years from now, I think that our family will also look back on this as a special period when we spent more time together than ever and bonded over the experiences that this unprecedented situation threw at us.

Resilience isn’t just about overcoming failure—it’s also about being flexible to adapt to the unexpected. Everyone has a unique way of coping in times of uncertainty, but there are four tips that most of us can benefit from:

Mourn what you’ve lost. When something doesn’t turn out how we expected, a loss happens. It’s the loss of an experience we expected to have. Whether that is the commencement ceremony that’s not happening or the big party after the thesis defense that’s now a socially distanced affair, the loss is real. Give yourself permission to recognize the thing that you had been looking forward to and to mourn its loss.

Recognize how this change benefits the greater good. It can be tough to find a bigger purpose in adversity or struggle, but doing so can also be a significant step toward coping. Yes, it’s painful to see the research you’ve worked so hard on being halted for an undetermined amount of time. However, by staying home during the pandemic, you are literally saving the lives of people in your community. We will all know someone or be someone who falls ill, and our choices and actions can minimize how many people are affected.

Recognize how this change benefits you as a person. If you thought it was tough to see the greater good in what you’re facing, seeing how an unexpected change can benefit yourself can be even more difficult. The benefit is there—I promise. This may be something specific, like my example of getting to spend more time with my family and start each day with a snuggle party on the couch instead of a rushed breakfast on my way out the door. If you can’t think of something specific, one near-universal example is that finding a healthy way to cope with the unexpected in this situation will grow your resilience and better prepare you for whatever comes your way in the future.

Don’t go it alone. Whether you’re an extrovert or introvert, we all need community. While each person may be facing a unique situation, what we have in common is that we’re all reeling with loss and struggling to adapt to a new normal. If you’re feeling lonely, reach out to a friend via phone or video chat, or organize an online social hour. What better time to come together in support of one another and to remember that life is richer when lived in connection with the people around us.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at cenm.ag/officehours.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

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