It's Impossible To Focus On Work When The World Is On Fire

Be kind to yourself in this nightmare and set the pressure aside.
Professionals have to recognize when it's no longer OK to push through work during a disaster. Above, the Los Angeles skyline and sunset is obscured by smoke, ash and smog on Sept. 14., 2020.
Allen J. Schaben via Getty Images
Professionals have to recognize when it's no longer OK to push through work during a disaster. Above, the Los Angeles skyline and sunset is obscured by smoke, ash and smog on Sept. 14., 2020.

On top of their many other responsibilities, many people are now contending with environmental threats like wildfires that make it hard to breathe and exist outside, even when the disaster did not strike in your city. Right now, air pollution warnings are in effect across Canada and the United States following Canadian wildfires.

The understandable physical stress all this causes makes doing work, at times, impossible. Take it from professionals on the West Coast, who unfortunately have lots of experience with trying to cope when wildfire smoke is in the air.

Lara Hogan is a management coach based in Portland, Oregon, which in the second week of September 2020 recorded the worst air quality in the world among major cities as fires raged nearby. Towards the end of that week, Hogan was feeling lightheaded, experiencing a “weird cough,” and could not focus on her job, she said.

“It was much harder to do that work, like thinking, speaking, answering questions, normal stuff,” Hogan said. She asked herself, “Can I do a good job for the people I’m trying to support?”

When the answer became no, she made the decision to cancel her coaching calls for two days and spend her break resting, sleeping and playing video games.

“Now that I know how my brain functions in these numbers [of poor regional air quality], I know it’s going to be way smarter for me to be horizontal next to the air purifier than to have these calls,” Hogan said.

This follows the advice that Kristin Bianchi, a Maryland-based psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Behavior Change, suggests for people who have the ability to take time off.

“Because there’s no clear-cut end to disasters like wildfires..., conserving energy and knowing one’s limits is important,” she told HuffPost. “We’re more likely to get sick and/or hurt ourselves when we’re in prolonged states of stress. If basic activities like eating, sleeping and grooming are becoming difficult or are altogether compromised, [consider] taking some time off to reset if you can.”

When you can’t stop working, conserving energy is key.

“When we accept that situational factors are draining our batteries, we’re less likely to criticize ourselves for reductions in work quality and productivity.”

- Psychologist Kristin Bianchi

For Karen González-Ruezga, a salesperson for a food service company who lives in Kern County, California, taking time off work was not an option despite the poor regional air quality from nearby fires in 2020. While her employer was lenient, “I still feel the stress of having to perform,” she said.

She did not have a desk job back then: She was in her car, out of her car, into a restaurant, and back to her car to go to the next business location. “I’m definitely getting a solid four hours of poor air quality while I’m outside,” González-Ruezga said about what working with wildfire smoke in the air is like.

For González-Ruezga, rest came from getting to take breaks at home. When she stopped at home for her lunch break, it was also her break from breathing poor quality air, she said.

During those days of poor air quality, González-Ruezga said her priorities changed daily, if not hourly, between doing her job and taking care of her 3-year-old son. “Obviously, long-term my priority is always going to be my son, and keeping my job is part of that. I need to be able to provide,” she said.

Her advice to other working parents in similar situations is to take time to yourself when possible, to do activities like exercising or simply sitting on the couch and emptying out your mind. That can be key to maintaining sanity during so many unknowns, she said.

“For me, I found that I give myself just five minutes to do that every time that I’m feeling overwhelmed, or meditating and giving myself that space, I’m able to continue about my day in the best possible way that I can,” González-Ruezga said.

Bianchi stressed that working professionals should accept that focusing on how to stay safe means there will be less fuel in the tank for work-related tasks.

“Be kind to yourself,” she said. “When we accept that situational factors are draining our batteries, we’re less likely to criticize ourselves for reductions in work quality and productivity.”

Bianchi said it’s key for professionals to be assertive about their boundaries around what they can and cannot do for their employer right now.

“Because the wildfire conditions are fluid, plans may need to be changed or canceled abruptly,” she said. “The more clearly, calmly and matter-of-factly one communicates these parameters, the less stressful it will be when abrupt changes need to be made.”

Reaching out to people who can validate your experience with these ongoing crises is helpful, too.

For Hogan, it was helpful to communicate with other people in Portland on social media who could give witness to her experience and affirm, “Yes, it is this bad,” and “It’s real dire and real scary.”

Finding a community to support your well-being is key, because living through a climate crisis is known to take a mental toll. Katie Hayes, a researcher focused on the psychological effects of climate change, has found that extreme weather events — which are more frequent and intense due to climate change — can exacerbate mental illness and trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, recovery fatigue and vicarious trauma, among other symptoms.

It’s important for people to have a conversation “about how these events can really trigger this sense of loss, or anxiety, or depression,” Hayes said. “The more that we talk about it, the more we see that there are a lot of commonalities, and many people may be experiencing this issue.”

If you’re feeling anxious and sad about the state of your environment, there are places where you can connect with others. Hayes mentioned climate cafes, which are discussion groups where people can talk about climate change with a receptive audience; the Good Grief Network, an organization that helps people combat eco-anxiety and despair; and Eco-Anxious Stories, an online forum for people to share their worries about the climate crisis. Having a supportive space online is particularly necessary while people are social distancing, Hayes said.

For working professionals, there can be a freedom when employers acknowledge that there is no easy corporate fix for how people are struggling to focus right now. “There’s not like a new bullet journal mechanism, an accountability buddy, or a four-day work week that’s going to fix this or make it what it was,” Hogan said.

And if you’re a manager, Hogan said, it will be helpful to at least acknowledge to your people, “This is a totally bizarre situation you haven’t seen before.”

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