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Frayed around the edges
Written by Paul Gray, consulting partner
6 May 2020
Has anyone lost their patience but found some irritability to replace it? I know that has happened to me in the course of the past few weeks.
I am not a naturally patient person, but I can generally be patient. It’s a necessary skill, in professional and family contexts. Sometimes I can even be patient without showing it. But what I have noticed recently is that small things, things that I would have brushed off or ignored, have annoyed me disproportionately.
The newspaper article that I would have disregarded a few weeks ago now makes me annoyed, even although my annoyance is completely unproductive. Bad behaviour on social media – surliness, or downright rudeness, or condescending remarks – has me reaching for the keyboard whereas in the past I would have sighed and moved on. Fortunately, I have retained just enough common sense only to get as far as composing my well-turned and cutting commentary in my mind’s eye, and stopping at that. But three months ago, I wouldn’t have even given it more than a second’s thought.
I spoke to some of my colleagues, and slightly to my surprise they were feeling much the same. I began to wonder if it is in fact a product of the present situation.
We have been through enormous changes in the past few weeks. Some things have happened which would have been astonishing even six months ago – government interventions to support businesses, moving substantial areas of work out of offices into remote working in the course of a few days, building new functioning hospitals in a few weeks.
A lot has changed in a very short space of time. There is also a lot of uncertainty – and most people are concerned to some level about their health, or the health of loved ones, friends and colleagues. All of that has an emotional impact.
But there is something else too. Usually, we have ways of dealing with stress and working off frustrations. They might be taking exercise every day, or participating in sport, or going to a particular place at the weekend, or going out for coffee or for drinks after work. If we are worried about elderly or sick parents or relatives or friends, we would go to visit them, and to help them in whatever way we could. We might book a holiday so that we could look forward to that.
Drawing this together, we have some new things. We have change, and uncertainty, and health concerns; some will also be carrying concerns about business viability, or employment, or both. These are all new and different from what we were experiencing before. But we have also lost some old things in the meantime – the gym, the football, the walk by the seaside, the pub, the restaurant, the café, the family visit, the chat with friends in the street, the concert, the handshake, the hug, the holiday plans, the weight of a knee-borne child listening entranced to Winnie the Pooh’s encounter with a heffalump, the solemn rituals of mourning much loved friends who have died, the places of worship, the places of gathering, the bustle of strangers, the sound of the busker’s music in the air.
And many of these losses were the things that eased away our frustrations and stresses and strains without our really noticing. The things that gave us perspective and reminded us there was more to life. Some of them we did knowingly, understanding that in doing them we would feel better, more relaxed, happier, rewarded perhaps. Others we did from habit, the benefit accepted unconsciously as a happy by-product.
Now, for the moment, we must use some of whatever reserves of energy we have to deal with these emotions that cannot be dissolved in the things we have lost. The irritation that pops up is not the product of some sudden erosion of moral fibre, common sense and decency. It’s the effect of having to deal with frustrations and worries when a lot of the de-stressing tools that were in our toolbag have been taken away, and we don’t even know if, when and how they are coming back.
This is not a charter for irritable behaviour. Particularly in a professional context, the more senior the leadership role you hold, the more damaging even a momentary flash of irritation can be. But if we understand that our energies are being sapped by having to deal with change, emotion and loss all at once, it makes it easier to reassure ourselves that we are not losing our minds along with everything else. It also makes us mindful that the folk we lead will be having these emotions too.