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    Many Are Hitting Their Pandemic Wall At Work Right Now; We Asked Expert Therapist Esther Perel How To Get Through It

    We had questions around mental health, burning out, broken routines, and workplace resentments, and she answered every single one of them.

    As many hit the one-year mark of working from home during the pandemic, it makes sense that things feel especially tough right now. Teachers are being pushed to their breaking points, working parents are facing impossible dilemmas, and many feel like they've hit the inevitable "pandemic wall."

    To help put all of this into context, BuzzFeed spoke to expert Esther Perel about the impact of the crisis on the workplace. And she offered valuable advice on how to cope with our work situations, our mental health, and our emotional well-being right now.

    Another shot of Esther Perel speaks onstage at the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals
    Jim Bennett / WireImage

    Perel is a renowned therapist and leading voice on modern relationships. She has written two New York Times best-selling books, given viral TED talks that have been watched more than 20 million times, and hosts two podcasts: Where Should We Begin? and How’s Work?

    In How’s Work?, Perel has one-time therapy sessions with people who work together to explore their relational habits and how they manifest at work. (You can sign up to be on Season 2 here.)

    During a personal Q&A, Perel offered candid advice on many situations that feel all too familiar: from workplace burnout to emotional isolation to identity shifts as a result of uncertainty.

    Esther Perel sitting as she holds up one finger at a live event
    Cindy Ord

    In all of these situations, Perel believes there is a key skill that can allow you to cope more effectively. And it's a skill that can be learned. That skill, she says, is resilience.

    "Resilience is the capacity to tap into resources," explains Perel. "Some of them are inner resources and some of them are people, the collective resource.”

    She also emphasizes that in any situation of acute stress — like a global pandemic — we are expected to behave differently and, sometimes, even more extremely. It's totally normal.

    That's because, as Perel explains, we usually go into our typical coping styles when we are stressed. As the stress gets more intense, our coping styles become exacerbated.

    Here are 10 crowdsourced questions and Esther's very timely advice:

    1. Q: "I’ve felt much more isolated from my colleagues since this has all begun, and I'm really struggling with that. It makes my job and life feel much harder. Most of my interactions come from work now, and it makes me feel negatively about work and everything that happens with my job. What can I do about it?"

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    “The isolation that you're talking about is more than just isolation,” Perel says.

    It’s more of a sense of loss, or specifically "ambiguous loss," which usually accompanies a period of prolonged uncertainty. Perel uses examples of Alzheimer’s, missing persons, and miscarriages to help define ambiguous loss: “They are still physically present, but they are psychologically gone. Or, you have people who have disappeared. They are still psychologically present, but they are physically gone.”

    She continues, “Ambiguous loss is what we are experiencing right now for a world that is still somewhat physically present but doesn't resemble itself. And you can't fully mourn it, but you know that there is a sense of mourning that is taking place.”

    This leads to a sense of collective grief — for little losses, too, including missed birthdays or canceled weddings. With this understanding, Perel believes that one of the best things we can do is continue to try to connect with others.

    For work, Perel suggests checking in with your coworkers emotionally during meetings, instead of immediately jumping into business as usual. “To have all those things as part of your conversations will actually help strengthen the emotional health, relational health, trust, and accountability among each other," she says.

    2. Q: "There is so much happening in the world. I feel like I’m often lying in bed — which is right next to my desk where I work from home — doom-scrolling until midnight and thinking about work constantly. So it’s easy to get burnt out even when I’m not actually working, and it feels like work and life are bleeding together. Is this a self-control thing?"

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    Before all else, Perel reiterates, “We are not working from home. We are working with home. And that’s very different.” She points to the collapse of our boundaries — how we function simultaneously as employees, bosses, parents, teachers, partners, cooks, cleaners, and more in a singular space (our home) that is now simultaneously our office, gym, restaurant, and laundromat.

    Naturally, says Perel, it’s difficult to mentally separate your headspace when your physical space remains the same. “This collapse of the boundaries is intensely psychologically taxing,” Perel says. “We've never been more physically apart, and we've never been more intimately involved in each other's private spaces."

    To counter this sense of a lack of self-control, Perel advises creating routines, rituals, and boundaries in order to deliberately recreate and mimic the structure we are normally used to. It can be as simple as tiny gestures, such as clearing your "office" table after the workday and setting it so that it becomes your dining table again. Things like this may seem unnecessary, says Perel, but they're actually intensely important.

    3. Q: "Before COVID-19, I was very routine-oriented, and now I find that I really struggle to keep any routine for even a week. And when I can’t keep it, I feel even worse. This includes working. I used to be able to work for hours straight, and now I can’t stay consistent. How can I get back on track?"

    United Plankton Pictures / Nickelodeon Animation Studio / Via

    “It's very, very hard to be completely alone and disciplined about some of these routines right now," says Perel. "Maybe you were good in the past, but in this moment, one of the most important ways to create any type of routine is to be accountable to others. It’s not to do it alone.

    Fundamentally, she says, our way of life before the pandemic — from contextual living with our commutes to just getting dressed to step out — provided a natural, built-in structure that helped enforce routines. When this structure has been all but dissolved, we need to find new ways to have routines. And as Perel sums up, “Accountability is a form of structure.”

    Maybe you’d blow off an afternoon walk alone or take constant breaks when you’re working independently. But with a friend, you’d show up or focus. (Nobody likes a flaker.) By doing things with others, Perel acknowledges that they become cohesive forces — instead of simply just routines — that are part of the new structure in your life.

    Where can you start with this? “Find two or three people who have the same need as you and the same complaint as you," says Perel. "And then you go.”

    4. Q: "So many momentous things have happened this past year, but all of my days have kind of looked the same. I feel a sense of anger at this time and how it seems empty. It’s causing me to question even the value of my work and how I’m contributing to the world. How can I come to terms with that?"

    20th Century Fox / Via

    “The anger is part of the grief,” Perel explains, “And the grief is part of the experience: the collective loss.”

    Perel also notes that while it might feel like anger, there can be emotions underneath that as well. “Sometimes, it's more sadness. Sometimes, it's more irritability. It’s different feelings, but it’s all part of that acute stress," she says.

    This grief — connected to and compounded by isolation, prolonged uncertainty, and ambiguous loss — is also connected to what Perel calls the loss of eros: the loss of curiosity, spontaneity, exploration, and the like. These things have now become dangerous thanks to the pandemic. And losing this “enormous, livening, and essential dimension” of our lives, as she puts it, causes us to mourn.

    To try and oppose that empty feeling, especially with work, Perel urges us to create little rituals with our team or friends. “It doesn't have to be very complicated. It could be something like recipe sharing," she says. "But [the goal is to] create little experiences of surprise and unknown."

    5. Q: "I feel like I’m failing at everything. Throughout the pandemic, I have struggled to feel like a good parent, good partner, and good employee. They’re all hard enough, and I don’t feel like any of them are getting the attention they deserve. How do I feel proud of or satisfied with myself in this environment?"

    Fox / One Potato Two Potato / Endemol Shine North America / Via

    Perel has a question in response to this before she offers guidance: "Were you raised to be autonomous or interdependent?" Right now, Perel says, is a time for interdependence, particularly, through the use of "pods." She advises finding others who are going through similar challenges as you and creating a "pod" together. “Because one other adult in the house or close by, or another child, is going to change the dynamic of the family and generally for the better,” explains Perel.

    “And if you are alone,” she continues, “it's about moving in with one of two other people. If you are not alone but you are close to other people, it's about sharing food so that you don't have to eat the same leftovers three days in a row. You can eat somebody else's leftovers, which will make for you a very new dish.”

    These ways of interdependent thinking are not so dominant in the US, but "this is a moment when you choose your people,” Perel says. “And you create a canopy around you, and you begin to deal with the next three months differently. It's like the loss of the resources that you would have relied on doesn't prevent you from creatively thinking about other resources.”

    6. Q: "As Americans, we get our sense of worth from our jobs. My job and my identity as a person are so closely intertwined. I don’t want to feel like I’m just clocking in and clocking out, and that this is just a job. I’ve been struggling because I want to be passionate and care about my work, but I don’t want my job to consume my entire identity. How can I separate the two?"

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    As people begin to settle down later in life, work becomes the place to socialize and seek community and meaning. “Today,” Perel says, “work is an identity project. It’s an identity economy.” Therefore, Perel suggests asking yourself what else you have: friendships, activities, things you do that are not about you, artistic pursuits, mentees. Think of it as a list of things someone would need to know about you to know you — things that give you elements of joy, meaning, relevance, and connections.

    With everything going on in the world, it’s natural to have different concerns and cares, so you may not be as passionate about work as you have been in the past. Perel remarks, “What you’re asking is, ‘Am I less committed to my work if this is not the one thing and be-all that’s at the center of me all the time?’” If that’s difficult to think about, she adds, “Artists deal with that all the time.”

    “Am I a painter when I’m not painting? Am I an actor if I’m not performing?” Perel says, “How much do I have to do it in order to be it? And how much do I have to do it in order to think that I am really it? That's the identity question.”

    In reality, Perel notes that you may not even be producing any less work. You could simply be feeling less enthused or thinking about other things. Regardless, it’s a perfectly normal behavior in a pandemic or any crisis.

    7. Q: "There’s been a lot of uncertainty this past year. So it’s hard for me to discern whether what I’m feeling is situational or permanent. For example, is my lack of motivation at work a result of the pandemic or is it depression? Will these things be amended in the future when we go back to something more normal, or are they things that would have been triggered regardless?"

    TLC / Sharp Entertainment / Via

    “Disasters and crises function as accelerators," says Perel. "They function as accelerators in relationships, they function as accelerators for people, and they function as accelerators in terms of our priorities.” And disasters remind us of our awareness of our own mortality, which, in turn, rearranges our priorities. However, it does so in a way that overrides our usual way of processing things and puts the most important thing in front of us.

    To help paint a clearer picture, Perel adds, “You may hear somebody say, ‘What am I waiting for?’” And that, she says, can mean, “I'm going to have a kid. I’m going to get married. I'm going to stay with this person. I'm going to move this relationship along. I'm going to start this project that I've been meaning to do forever. I am going to leave this job that I've been at forever. Because it goes from ‘What am I waiting for?’ to ‘I've waited long enough.’”

    Having said that, Perel answers that when asked these questions — Is this me or is this the world I’m in? — she can’t separate them. You may or may not have been experiencing these feelings before, but Perel asserts, “You cannot take yourself out of the context and think that your state is just yours internally.” That doesn't mean you should stress over these new priorities though; rather, just take them as information.

    8. Q: "This year has been challenging in many ways. And the human connection at work — from seeing leadership to interacting to coworkers in small ways — helps rebuild trust and morale. How do we maintain or rebuild what was once a normal sense of camaraderie with our coworkers?"

    ITV Studios Global Entertainment / Debmar-Mercury/Lionsgate Television / Via

    A big point Perel drives home is how much of a collective experience this all is: As in, most employees are experiencing this together. So if most employees are experiencing a lack of connection, one solution is to create experiences that foster connection. For this, Perel turns to research on couples in long-distance relationships.

    “If you actually sit together on a video chat, it's fine. But it's quite exhausting.” Perel says, “Instead, if we're both doing stuff in parallel play — like I'm cooking, you’re cooking; or I'm at my desk working, and you're at your desk working — that actually is a lot better for fostering the connection and not feeling this kind of frozen state."

    So if you and some colleagues are working independently, you can try keeping a video chat on as you work. And when you want to take a break, you can ask your colleague if they’d like to take a break too and chat before getting back to work.

    9. Q: "I've always felt so supportive of my coworkers and their accomplishments. But since the pandemic, I find myself feeling jealous and petty when a colleague does really well, and I hate it. I don't like feeling that way and I suspect it's because I feel like I haven't been my best since the pandemic began. What can I do?"

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    First, Perel thinks you should take the time to consider why you’re not at your best — whether it be caring for a new baby, helping your parents, etc. — because you’re not not at your best for no reason.

    "Turn your issue of jealousy into a question of self-compassion. When you have jealousy on one side, you have self-loathing on the other. Self-compassion is the opposite of self-loathing," she says.

    That doesn’t mean you need to force self-praise, though. Perel says It’s simply the ability to understand yourself within a realistic context.

    As for what to do? Seek collective resilience, Perel says. "It's the ability to create a way of dealing with this period together by tapping into the shared resources of the group,” she explains.

    Rather than hide your struggles, seek help from colleagues. It’s likely others are feeling the same way. You can ask a colleague to look over your work or connect you to resources that can help you work better. This way, it becomes something to deal with instead of feel ashamed of.

    10. Q: "Everybody is dealing with the pandemic, so I assume everybody that I know is also incredibly overwhelmed and overworked. This stops me from asking my colleagues for help because I don’t want to thrust my burden on somebody else. What can I do?"

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    I would simply say: Don't assume,” Perel says. “Because people feel that they matter and that they're important and that they’re relevant when they can do something for others. And that's when they realize that they actually have more than what they thought.”

    Of course, this doesn’t mean to just dump everything on your nearest colleague. You should still ask them if they have the bandwidth to help you first. “If the person can't do it,” Perel says, “they should really feel free to say, ‘I really would love to and I can't. I'm so glad you asked, because it says something about what you think about me.’”

    If you want more insight from Esther Perel, you can find her site here or her Instagram here. And if you'd like to sign up for Season 2 of her podcast How's Work?, you can find the form here. ✨

    Note: Some answers have been lightly edited for length and/or clarity.