Strategies to preserve relationships and productivity in times of stress

In early February, the Canadian government began invoking emergency orders under the Quarantine Act as a means to slow down the transmission of the novel coronavirus. Two months later amid a full pandemic, I’m sensing rising levels of mental stress and cabin fever in some citizens.

My family is not under quarantine. We are doing our part, however, to minimize the spread of COVID-19 by following the Public Health Agency’s stay-at-home-isolation measures. We will not leave home for non-essential business.

Living together continuously in close quarters, even with loved ones, can be challenging. As much as I love my spouse and children, I enjoyed getting out of the house to pursue professional and recreational passions. That will not be possible in the coming weeks … perhaps months. Besides less contact with the outside world, other living challenges I can expect are monotony, loss of privacy and reduced comforts-of-living. And then there is the ever-present background risk of catching the viral infection.

In such a setting, personal and interpersonal problems can arise:

  • lethargy
  • mood changes
  • clashes between differing personality types
  • ineffective leadership and followership

I trained with fellow astronauts for these kinds of living situations in space. We studied the psychology of isolation and confinement. We learned that the stressors of long-duration flight, if unchecked, could impact our productivity and relationships.

So, as part of this training, my crews honed non-technical skills – self-care, teamwork, leadership, followership – that helped us maintain interpersonal relations and accomplish mission objectives. Here are a few strategies that I learned about living as a group in space. I believe that this collection of tips is equally applicable to isolated settings on Earth. Perhaps you’ll find them helpful as you and your family together confront the COVID-19 outbreak.

1. Use conflict management skills

Minor conflicts between crewmembers during spaceflight are inevitable. The broad cultural, national and linguistic diversity of modern-day astronaut crews can sometimes spark misunderstandings.

Helpfully, I found that dinner times were good opportunities for my crew to hold wide-ranging, frank conversations. Something special happens over dinner – something restorative and universal – when a group of people get together to prepare and share a meal together.

When conflicts arise, families in home isolation should also find time to communicate grievances and allow everyone to respectfully air their expectations. Listen to each person’s perspective and then find a means to compromise. There may not always be a win-win situation. However, by establishing a middle ground, we can begin once again to move forward.

2. Do your share of communal tasks

Each member of a crew contributes to the collective quality of life aboard a spacecraft. Accordingly, all astronauts do our share of housekeeping and communal tasks. One of the unglamorous tasks that needs to be periodically performed is to remove a full waste container from the Station toilet and replace it with an empty one.

Without fanfare, we find time in our work day to get it done. It’s part of being a good crew member. And a well-maintained toilet has a surprisingly positive effect on the morale of the crew!

My crewmate Koichi Wakata finds time in his workday schedule to change out the waste storage container of the ISS toilet – an essential but unglamorous task. Courtesy NASA.

One of my weekly housekeeping chores was the vacuuming of the HEPA filters. These air filters, located throughout the Station, remove micro-particles and microbes from the air that we breathe. Courtesy NASA.

3. Support colleagues’ personal needs

I recall a particular day in space when I was running 30 minutes late throughout the day on all of my tasks. Despite working feverishly, I just couldn’t seem to catch up. I was getting frustrated.

When I arrived at a worksite for one of my afternoon tasks, however, I was surprised and delighted that all of the tools that I would need for the upcoming task were waiting for me at the worksite. I don’t know which of my crewmates had pre-collected the tools and placed them in a large ziplock bag. But that kind act allowed me to catch up on my timeline. A crewmate’s gesture changed a bad day for me to a good one – and changed my bad mood to a good one.

4. Include crew members in activities

“Us vs. Them” is a classic workplace phenomenon that can quickly escalate and be destructive. “We” feel unsupported and overcontrolled. “We” unfairly blame “them” for the problems that arise and for our own mistakes.

In the setting of a multinational crew, it is especially important to ensure that the “us vs. them” dynamic does not develop and damage esprit-de-corps; that no member of the crew feels alienated from the rest. If, for example, a few crewmembers pause in the middle of the day to playfully relax or laugh over a joke, make sure that all crewmembers are present and engaged. If one or two crewmembers haven’t been invited to join in on the hilarity, they may feel left out.

5. Be aware how your behaviour affects others

Every member of a crew contributes to the quality of life aboard a spacecraft. This means that each crewmember should modify her/his behaviour as necessary to make the spacecraft environment workable and pleasant for everyone.

We all have unique personality characteristics that over months can begin to irritate other crewmembers. For example, if someone is not keeping up on their personal hygiene or is leaving the toilet dirty after use, it would not be surprising that the mood of the crew and the collective productivity would fall.

I’d modify my behaviour and do whatever was necessary for the welfare of my crewmates. What was ultimately most important to me was accomplishment of our mission objectives; not pursuit of my personal goals.

Living together in close quarters during the pandemic, even with loved ones, will be challenging. Be self-aware of your own behaviours that can annoy other family members. Modify them, if necessary, to make the living environment pleasant and safe for all and to accommodate other’s needs.

*          *

These are some of the strategies that I adopted as an astronaut to optimize group living in space. They are readily applicable to other situations. Be aware that COVID-19 home-isolation (like a space mission) will be a marathon, not a sprint. Attend to your sleep, diet and exercise now to ensure you have the reserves to draw upon in the later months when conditions could be more serious.

Retain structure and focus. Although COVID-19 has disrupted our usual pattern of living, don’t accept an aimless, unproductive day. Maintain purpose. Create a to-do list for the week and work through it.

Consider this state of home-isolation as a unique opportunity (i.e. make lemonade from lemons). Build into your daily schedule some time for relaxation, creativity and play. For instance, I’m catching up on my backlog of reading, writing and phone calls with distant friends. This period can be an opportunity to practise mindfulness and to reflect on others’ circumstances. I’m sending notes to friends who are struggling with mental health concerns and loss, and to colleagues who are working on the front line of the pandemic.

Perhaps it would be helpful for Canadian families to think of self-isolation as a form of astronaut training. In fact, we are all crewmembers aboard Spaceship Earth. Our mission objective during this outbreak is to flatten the infectious rate curve so that patients and healthcare practitioners around the world have a fighting chance. And to enjoy the unique, positive aspects of the adventure at the same time.

2 thoughts on “Strategies to preserve relationships and productivity in times of stress

  1. Thanks so much, Bob, for sharing your thoughts and experience on the blog. I think everyone will find a reminder or an idea here to improve on life at home under these unique conditions. There is strength in being able to put a positive framework around what we are experiencing in this pandemic-it provides us with a positive grounding to build upon.I think many people will choose to follow your example. Many thanks.

  2. Bob, some useful tips for Team Canada and Team Earth.
    Or as Spock said in Wrath of Khan ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few .. or the one’.

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