Professor Ahmad’s Six-Month Wall: Rehumanizing The Virtual Workplace
Nancy Doyle 03:04am EDT 45,899 views|Sep 24, 2020, @ProfAishaAhmad
This week I was touched to see a twitter thread from Professor Aisha Ahmad of the University of Toronto. Professor Ahmad’s work has spanned geographies, cultures, and historical events. She has lived and worked through multiple long-haul crises and offered a unifying, human perspective on where many of us are right now. She says:
“The six-month mark in any sustained crisis is always difficult. We have all adjusted to this "new normal," but might now feel like we're running out of steam. Yet, at best, we are only one third of the way through this marathon. How can we keep going? First, in my experience, this is a very normal time to struggle or slump. I *always* hit a wall six months into a tough assignment in a disaster zone. The desire to "get away" or "make it stop" is intense. I've done this many times, and at 6 months, it's like clockwork”. I personally found this very reassuring. It made me feel that I wasn’t alone - that I was part of a community and that my fellow humans might be experiencing a similar slump in energy.
Professor Ahmad went on to advise:
“This time, our crisis is global and there is nowhere to run. That's OK. I've had to power through that six-month hump before and there is life on the other side. Right now, it feels like we are looking ahead at a long, dark wintery tunnel. But it's not going to be like that. Rather, this is our next major adaptation phase. We've already re-learned how to do groceries, host meetings, and even teach classes. And we have found new ways to be happy and have fun. But as the days get shorter and colder, we need to be ready to innovate again. This is my first pandemic, but not my first six-month wall. So, what can I share to help you? First, the wall is real and normal. And frankly, it's not productive to try to ram your head through it. It will break naturally in about four to six weeks if you ride it out. Of course, there are things we have to do. Work. Teach. Cook. Exercise. But just don't expect to be sparklingly happy or wildly creative in the middle of your wall. Right now, if you can meet your obligations and be kind to your loved ones, you get an A+”.
I immediately began to feel less self-reproach. I also realized how similar this advice is for people who have lived through major illness, disability, or bereavement. Humans adapt. What makes us unique as a species is our ability to develop new ways to survive and thrive. So with this context, I started to think back to major transitions in my life: the trauma of school as an undiagnosed neurominority, the sleeplessness of being a new mom to twins, stages in my business where I was not sure that it, or I, would survive. Professor Ahmad offers reassurance that “this too, shall pass.” She says:
“Also, don't be afraid that your happiness & creativity are gone for the rest of this marathon. Not true. I assure you that it will soon break & you will hit a new stride. But today, roll with it. Clear away less challenging projects. Read a novel. Download that meditation app. Frankly, even though we cannot physically leave this disaster zone, try to give yourself a mental or figurative "shore leave". Short mental escapes can offer respite and distance from the everyday struggle. Take more mental "leave" until you clear the wall. In my experience, this six-month wall both arrives and dissipates like clockwork. So I don't fight it anymore. I don't beat myself up over it. I just know that it will happen & trust that the dip will pass. In the meantime, I try to support my mental & emotional health. Take heart. We have navigated a harrowing global disaster for six months, with resourcefulness & courage. We have already found new ways to live, love, and be happy under these rough conditions. A miracle & a marvel. This is hard proof that we have what it takes to keep going. So, dear friends, do not despair of the six-month wall. It's not permanent, nor will it define you in this period of adversity. Trust that the magic that helped you through the first phase is still there. Take a breath & a pause. You'll be on the other side in no time.”
Post Traumatic Growth Theory Did you know that the most common long-term psychological response to trauma is not breakdown, but ambition and resolve? It’s a real thing and it is beyond simple resilience. Did you know that eighty three percent of disabilities are acquired, at the average age of 53 years old? You and your staff are highly likely to have lived through personal and professional crises, have hit this wall and learned to move on. The shared experience of the pandemic in terms of our work lives being compromised; curtailed and threatened; the enormous efforts of recalibrating our communications and structures - this is a global scale rework. But we need look no further than our own organizations for those with experience, those who until recently have have been forced, on a daily basis, to communicate, travel and expose themselves to pain and discomfort in order to participate.
Coping Strategies So, here’s a bunch of advice from my neurodivergent and disabled colleagues and clients. This is from our experience of long haul living in a world that doesn’t flex to us, that we have needed to flex to in order to belong. Let us share our wisdom and ideas for hanging in there during crisis fatigue.
A client with chronic fatigue syndrome once relayed their metaphor for managing energy. “Never let the battery run to zero. Recharge at around three or four and set it back to ten before you get started again.”
An autistic colleague points out that the senses can soothe. "Surround yourself with smells, colors, sounds, or soft clothing that makes you feel warm and safe. This is your self-care bubble."
A dyspraxic colleague advises to not compare yourself to others. She simply notes that her processing speed does not permit her to drive fast, so rather than being anxious when people are speeding and trying to get her to move quickly, she has learned to ignore it. She prioritizes her natural rhythm and as a result drives safely with confidence.
A colleague with multiple sclerosis and long covid, who used to be an art teacher, is using art projects and letter writing to stay connected to the prison clients that she cannot visit in person.
A client who became Deaf at the age of 45, zeroed in on her visual spatial strengths and taught herself sign language and lip reading so quickly that she was able to start teaching others within three years. She had days when she just lay on the couch and cried when the kids were at school, yet she resolved to always have one productive day per week so that she could still feel like she was making progress and wouldn’t slide into hopelessness.
As an ADHDer, I’ve learned to ride the waves of hyper-focus. If I’m in the zone, I don’t try to curtail myself to a short working day because it is what I “should” do, I let my productivity run out naturally and then rest.
A creative with Tourettes, chooses his allies when times are rough and prioritizes connections with people for whom he does not need to mask, where he can let his tics rip and know that he is safe and respected.
A dyslexic director focuses on what she can uniquely do. She makes sure that she delegates so that she isn’t trying to do the things she finds the hardest at the times she is struggling the most. This is where your balanced, neurodiverse team comes in handy! Some people genuinely love to focus on fine detail checking when they are too stressed to do bigger picture analysis, and some people can’t manage the dotting and crossing when their heads are predisposed to long term strategy. Working to your strengths has never been so vital.
Human Beings, Not Human Doings Your individual coping strategies are unique to you. We are all different in what works, what provides solace, so encourage your team to share ideas. However, we are all the same in this pandemic in worrying about the future, wondering what will happen to our transport, social structures, and economic paradigms. There will be losses. We know that some of the most inspirational stories will surely emerge as we emerge, the businesses who are innovating right now in chrysalis. But in order to get there we need to rehumanize and find a way to truly connect to each other.
What open spaces can we facilitate to provide human connection? Maybe this moment is about not trying to be the one with all the answers. When I read Professor Ahmad’s twitter thread, I felt galvanized and reassured, as well as deeply connected to my fellow humans, wherever they are. Now, I don’t know about you, but our initial wave of ‘virtual team drops ins’ have waned, they’ve become perfunctory and lost their pizazz. No one wants more zoom. Time to think outside the box, which is what neurominorities do best.
This week my genius colleagues are starting a mural, and we’re inviting all our staff to start sharing art, music, poetry, quotes, and thoughts to convey experience, emotion, hopes and fears. The Arts are uniquely human, transcending culture and formality. They create, crystalize and communicate our technological and scientific innovations. We can cut through the noise of the day to day news and goal setting to share our values and priorities. We’re taking the pressure off constant purpose during the six-month wall and creating a mural of shared connection, to re-engage our company culture. And culture, as we know, eats strategy for breakfast. With all this virtualization, we need to remember who we are, not just what we do.
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I am the CEO of Genius Within, a company specializing in the organizational science of neurodiversity. With my team, I deliver coaching, training, assessment and universal design audits as well as systemic inclusion for whole company inclusion programs. I am also a Research Fellow, exploring the impact of neurodiversity inclusion on workplace productivity and performance. I developed the international docu-series 'The Employables / Employable Me', focusing on the journey of people with autism and Tourettes into employment, featuring my pioneering approach to positive assessment.