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How rituals can help us adapt to the new working reality

  • Date: Fri, Apr 17, 2020

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Front of SEDEven simple, seemingly pointless rituals can offset the loss of a regular working routine. Fri, April 17 2020. Olive Keogh, The Irish Times.

One of the most difficult aspects of the coronavirus crisis to deal with is the disruption of the basic human ritual of grieving. Rituals provide structure, especially in difficult situations, and without them people feel cast adrift and denied a powerful source of comfort at a time of profound distress.

Loss is the underlying theme of this pandemic and, although people are trying to live as normally as possible, they are also coping with a plethora of unsettling losses from job cuts and curtailed physical liberty to losing the camaraderie of the workplace.

For most people, the process of going to work is one of the most significant “rituals” in their life, and when it is fundamentally changed or taken away, the fallout can be overwhelming.

“The traditional rituals of work life have disappeared, like stopping by colleagues’ desks for a chat or eating lunch with friends,” says organisational behaviour expert Dr Annette Clancy from UCD. “This is the social architecture of work; the culture and atmosphere that supports how work is performed. Without rituals and routines, we can easily feel disconnected from work, each other and ourselves. We are missing real connection in this new normal, Zoomed-out from too many hours in dissonant conversations, and around now the novelty of working from home is losing its sheen and tensions may be increasing.”

In normal circumstances, rituals can boost our confidence and help us cope with life and manage anxiety, stress, loss and disappointment. Oprah Winfrey’s ritual is to kick-start her day with a 20-minute meditation. Barack Obama always started his day two hours before everyone else so as not to miss out on his daily exercise followed by a cup of green tea. Mozart always composed last thing at night, Mark Zuckerberg (nearly) always dresses in the same “uniform” and anyone watching tennis champion Rafael Nadal will notice a continuous set of rituals from constantly adjusting his sportswear to lining up his drinks bottles like soldiers.

‘Sense of control’

“When we are all facing both actual and anticipated grief, these idiosyncratic rituals can restore our sense of control over our lives,” says Harvard Business School’s Prof Mike Norton, who was recently interviewed about the importance of rituals by the Harvard Business Review. “We feel out of control when we experience loss – we didn’t want it to happen, we couldn’t control it. That is, in and of itself, a very unpleasant feeling, that sense that you’re not in charge of your life. Rituals restore some of that control.”

Norton’s research shows that embracing a routine, no matter how silly, can improve our wellbeing and that, while rituals gain in strength when they’re repeated, even one-off rituals to symbolise a beginning, an end or a letting-go can be effective in keeping us mentally healthy.

“The utility of the ritual isn’t related to its practicality,” he says. “Absurd rituals can have high utility. If it helps you create that sense of control, if it calms your anxiety, that’s what matters.

“Think of performers who do strange rituals before performing. They know that walking in a circle three times while repeating a mantra doesn’t help them win, but it helps them calm down so they can perform.”

Already, there is widespread evidence of people filling the gap left by the physical rituals in their lives with virtual ones, from video chats to families using web-based services to play games and dine together. And they’re not happening ad hoc. They have quickly become regular lifelines that are keeping people connected and sane as they cope with the pandemic.

“One company has started all its virtual meetings by having participants click on images of Patrick from SpongeBob to indicate how they’re feeling,” Norton says. “Hard to imagine something sillier than this, but think what it does for the group: it has become a ritualistic way to start the meeting, and it is giving people a sense of control and familiarity in a new and uncomfortable situation.”

Client activity

Like many others, business coach Pamela Fay has experienced a drop-off in client activity and has had to move her remaining work online.

“During the week of the 16th of March about a third of my planned work for 2020 was cancelled,” she says. “I still lecture on two Smurfit School coaching programmes that have moved online and I am coaching via Zoom, but one of the first things I did when all of this happened was to ask some other coaches to join me in a coaching book club.

“Such was the demand that we now have two clubs that meet weekly via Zoom. This has been a great source of support, contact and learning. We have been reading Hetty Einzig’s The Future of Coaching and The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.

“I am seeing a real mix of emotions among my clients,” Fay adds. “Some are dealing with the direct impact of Covid-19 as they work in healthcare or other areas on the frontline. I also have clients trying to manage their own fluctuating emotions while working through how best to support their teams.

Many clients are balancing home-schooling needs while sharing a kitchen-table office with their partner, and there are questions about whose Zoom meeting takes precedence and who will mind the children at that time. The one mantra I am hearing a lot is ‘we are taking this day by day’.”

Pamela Fay has worked as a coach tutor and coach supervisor with UCD Smurfit Executive Development since 2014 and has practiced as a coach since 2008. Pamela works with clients across a diverse range of industry sectors in Ireland and the UK.

This article first appeared in The Irish Times.


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