As Reopenings Are Paused, “Social Care” Can Keep You Connected

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As the Covid Delta variant spreads around the world, return-to-office plans are being delayed by many companies, and we’re all potentially facing another round of shut downs. While round one of social distancing — and its impacts — couldn’t have been widely anticipated, this current round can and should be. Now is the time for us to plan for “social care” strategies at work and at home to help us mitigate both perceived and actual isolation, prevent loneliness, boost our physical and mental health, and keep our strong and weak ties connected. This article discusses five ways to create satisfying “social care” as you prepare for the social distancing the next wave of the pandemic is likely to bring.

From bread baking and exercising to meditation and Netflix, most of us found one or more ways to engage in acts of self-care during the first round of the global pandemic.

These activities helped us to manage our anxiety, alleviate stress, and invest in our well-being, and they served as a much-needed distraction from the disturbing news around us. Self-care activities also helped many of us find some balance while working from home, home-schooling our kids, or managing job loss, racial tensions, political upheaval, and more.

And yet, for many of us, self-care wasn’t enough to make us feel better. What we really craved was being with other people — our colleagues, family members, friends, and even those we consider “weak ties.”  What became evident during the pandemic was that, even for those of us living with others, we could experience “perceived social isolation,” which has a detrimental effect on mental and physical health.

None of us are immune to feeling isolated. Actual social isolation occurs when we experience low quality and/or quantity of engagement with others — whether it’s one on one, or with our team or group. Perceived social isolation occurs when our relationships don’t feel satisfying, or when we don’t trust the people around us. We still feel lonely — even when we’re around others.

Even if you live with roommates, a partner, your children, your parents or others, being physically proximate isn’t enough to mitigate the harms of feeling isolated. These range from a negative life outlook and depression to decreased trust at work and increased substance abuse.

To alleviate feelings of isolation, many of us found creative ways to create “social care” that worked around physical distancing — while still playing within the safety guidelines. Like what? Weekly Zoom family calls, daily team huddles, Peloton rides with friends, and walking meetings. And while some of those helped us feel connected, others still left us feeling isolated.

And here we are again, potentially getting ready to face the same challenges. As the Delta variant spreads around the world, return-to-office plans are being delayed by companies such as Google, Apple and Indeed. Still other companies have announced “work from anywhere” plans, where an in-person return isn’t necessary.

While round one of social distancing — and its impacts — couldn’t have been widely anticipated, this current round can and should be. Now is the time for us to plan for “social care” strategies at work and at home to help us mitigate both perceived and actual isolation, prevent loneliness, boost our physical and mental health, and keep our strong and weak ties connected.

Here are five ways to create satisfying “social care” as you prepare for the social distancing the next wave of the pandemic is likely to bring:

1. Do a teaching exchange.

Perhaps your colleagues have complimented your baking skills for years. Offer to teach them how to make your famous flourless brownies over Zoom. The next week, have your coworker who is a talented photographer show your team how to take their iPhone photos from good to great. And if your group is game, hire an instructor to teach a skill that others want to master but nobody’s ready to teach, like charcuterie board design.

2. Host or attend a reunion … or two or three.

I have friends from elementary school, middle school, high school, college, graduate school, and even coaching school with whom I am connected through social media and email. That’s six reunions right there. Whether you pull together old friends, past colleagues, classmates, distant cousins, or some other group, look for opportunities to turn weak ties into stronger ones.

3. Plan a strategic email campaign.

If you were to look at my calendar since the pandemic began, you’d notice that I have a small reminder every morning to send out an email. Mondays, I reach out to someone I admire. Tuesday, I connect with someone I haven’t spoken with in years. Wednesdays, I send an email to a new personal or professional connection. Thursdays, I send someone an article I think would interest them. Fridays, I thank someone. Do I do all of these emails every week? No way. But when I do make it happen, I always feel connected and inspired.

4. Send something through “snail mail.”

When the pandemic hit, my husband Michael joined the sourdough baking craze. Soon enough, our freezer was bursting at the seams with loaves of bread. While he donated many of those breads to our local food pantry, the rest got mailed as surprise gifts to friends, family, and even colleagues. It encouraged us to think about who we hadn’t connected with in a while, and to reach out with something tangible (and delicious), and then look forward to the inevitable thank-you call letting us know that the bread had arrived.

5. Engage in “parallel play.”

When my twins were toddlers, they would play in the same room, but not with each other. This is known as “parallel play” — and it’s not just for kids. Sometimes, our social itch can be scratched by being with each other even if we are working on different activities. I have hosted “writing camps,” where several of my colleagues and I are all on a Zoom call together (muted, cameras off) working on our own writing projects. I might be working on an article, while my friend is writing a grant proposal, and another one is grading papers. We check in for a little moral support once an hour, and then go back to work. You can do this with any activity — or activities — as a way to stay connected.

It’s true that there’s no substitute for physical proximity. And there’s also no substitute for preparation. As we get ready for social distancing in the weeks and months to come, we can start planning the social care strategies we need to stay healthy, happy, and connected.

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