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Don’t Call it the New Normal – A COVID Conversation with Dr. Cornelius

By October 20, 2020June 16th, 2021COVID-19 Related Podcasts

Dr. Erin Cornelius joins the Trusted Advisor Podcast again to check back in on our COVID-19 mental health. With her refreshing attitude and relatable examples, this COVID conversation will resonate with everyone. She also addresses how leaders can make the workplace a less stressful environment as businesses wrestle with the fatigue their employees are experiencing.


COVID Coping Conversation with Dr. Erin Cornelius

Edwin K. Morris (3s):
Welcome to the trusted advisor podcast brought to you by Iroquois group. Iroquois is your trusted advisor in all things insurance. I am Edwin K. Morris. We are pleased to welcome Dr. Erin Cornelius back into the studio today. Dr. Cornelius is a practicing licensed psychologist in the Buffalo New York area. She sees children and adults for a variety of issues, but tends to focus on anxiety, depression, adjustment disorders, and assessment of ADHD. Prior to working in private practice, Dr. Cornelius spent years doing behavioral health research at some of the nation’s leading hospitals.

Edwin K. Morris (44s):
In the new world environment called COVID-19, how does anybody cope?

Dr. Erin Cornelius (51s):
As best they can.

Edwin K. Morris (53s):
Is that your professional advice?

Dr. Erin Cornelius (55s):
That’d be my professional advice. This is hard. I mean, this whole situation is hard. I, I have said it to others before. You know, when this originally began back in March, we were billed a 15 day pause and I’m sure everybody thought that 15 days at home off would be actually a wonderful thing. And today on my calendar here in New York, today’s day 215. Expectation management wasn’t really good in the beginning. And now we’ve all been forced to adapt. We’ve all had to learn how to cope in a variety of different ways. And that has not been easy.

Edwin K. Morris (1m 34s):
What do you see as affecting the coping mechanism the most?

Dr. Erin Cornelius (1m 42s):
It’s fatigue. Everyone’s tired. Everyone’s tired of this. Everyone is tired of having to be vigilant. Everyone is tired of having to make sacrifices. Everyone is tired of uncertainty or just really, really tired and rightfully so. This had been a long haul.

Edwin K. Morris (2m 2s):
In that framework, how do you recommend, or how do you suggest to leadership of an organization of how do they deal with their employees in this environment? Let alone themselves.

Dr. Erin Cornelius (2m 15s):
I mean, the first thing I can think of is you got to recognize that being safe is exhausting. It takes a lot more mental energy to be on guard for as long as we’ve been on guard and we’re not done yet. We still have a ways to go. And so keeping your vigilance like that, it is tiring, you know, physically tiring, mentally tiring. And I think it’s really important for employers to recognize that in their employees and do what they can to support their employees, you know, mask wearing comes to mind, you know, it is an unfortunate, but true thing that mask wearing has become this divisive and conflictual issue. I think it’s really hard from the employer perspective of how they manage their employees’ safety and also manage, you know, the awkward and uncomfortable situation of having to be the enforcer of your clients coming into your office without masks on.

Dr. Erin Cornelius (3m 8s):
A lot of the businesses that are based upon relationships, you know, you feel awkward telling somebody to do something that unfortunately has taken this kind of, you know, divisive stand.

Edwin K. Morris (3m 20s):
There’s like a whole charge around this now that shouldn’t even be there.

Dr. Erin Cornelius (3m 24s):
Yeah, I, you know, is it a political statement? Is it a statement about how you care about people? Is it a statement about whether you’re a sheeple or not? I mean, people have attached a lot of meaning to this mask far beyond what any health professional will tell you, which is, it is a simple behavior that can mitigate risk to yourself and to others, that’s it, that’s all a mask is, but we have gotten way too emotionally attached to wearing them.

Edwin K. Morris (3m 48s):
Exactly. And that leads me to the next one, which is this case of enforcement, this case of providing a safe work environment, whatever that’s supposed to look like at the current moment, do you feel that there’s an air of apology to some degree that they feel like, Oh, I hate to impose this on. I’m sorry about that. But is that a thing? Is that something that needs to be modified?

Dr. Erin Cornelius (4m 13s):
Sure, absolutely. And, and I go with stop apologizing. You’re priming people when you say, “I’m sorry, but”. You’re priming people automatically to think that you’re making the wrong choice and then you therefore have to justify it. So you don’t need to apologize for it. You simply state that’s what you’re doing. Right. You know, I think there’s a variety of different ways in which you can do that. Obviously the easiest one is if you’re able to continue working remotely, you don’t have to have a conversation, right? You don’t have to tell anybody whether they should or shouldn’t be wearing a mask because they’re not in your office. And so that’s, you know, the easiest way to eliminate that conflict. But if that’s not an option for you to continue remote working and you are going to be engaging, you know, with clients and with employees and things like that, that require you to have some kind of policy, I’m a big fan of post it big and loud and clear before you even come inside the door so that there is no question what the expectation is in that office, which can help eliminate some of that conversation.

Dr. Erin Cornelius (5m 14s):
And you know what, use humor. Use humor to do it. I’ve seen some amazingly creative signs that quoting queen songs about being a big disgrace by not putting a mask on your face. I’ve seen other ones where they’ll make jokes about where they’ll take your temperature if you decide not to wear a mask, you know, even like in the insurance world, you know, spin it as a way for your business. They get a slogan, you cover your face, we’ll cover your liability. You know, there are a variety of different ways to kind of take the charge out of this and make it so that it’s a simple human behavior. Cause that’s really what it is.

Edwin K. Morris (5m 51s):
Do you see this whole concentration of all of this dilemma as a possible PTSD source?

Dr. Erin Cornelius (5m 59s):
Absolutely. We’re all living trauma right now. Everybody in this world is living through a trauma right now, how that trauma is interpreted and how it’s impactful will vary widely amongst people, but everybody is living through a trauma.

Edwin K. Morris (6m 14s):
Well, in the case of management of personnel, if you do identify someone, that’s kind of a bit of a slacker, so to speak, not quite up to par, how does management come in? How does leadership set forth a constructive way, considering all these things that you just talked about, knowing that it’s a minefield out there – what’s the easier or best paths that engage somebody that’s not quite up to par?

Dr. Erin Cornelius (6m 42s):
I always advocate that everybody comes at it with a bit of an angle of empathy. I mean, think about the human piece of this right now. You know that this is really, really hard. So if somebody is not performing the way that you expect them to, or the way they had previously performed, have a conversation about it, talk about it, ask, check in with them. You know, you can certainly address those performance issues, but you also want to do it in a way that recognizes that there are human beings living in trauma. And that this is a temporary situation. You know, I jokingly said, we’re on day 215 here, but this is going to end eventually. Like this is not – everyone keeps calling it the new normal.

Dr. Erin Cornelius (7m 23s):
I hate that term. I call it the now normal because it’s just the way things are right now. This is not the way it’s going to be forever. You don’t want to make rash permanent choices based upon a temporary situation. And so if you’re struggling with employees productivity, I really think it’s a conversation that needs to be had with the employee. And yet not only ask what’s going on and why is that happening, but what can you do to help make it better? I’ve noticed a lot in my own patients lately that a significant amount of them have low vitamin D right now, and to come off of summertime with low vitamin D. I mean, we’re here in Western New York. So we’re all used to low vitamin D by February, but low vitamin D in September and October is not really a thing, but what’s happening is people have spent so much time indoors that they essentially didn’t set themselves up for success going into these more indoor months.

Dr. Erin Cornelius (8m 19s):
People’s, their moods are locked. You know, they’re fatigued, they’re actually physically exhausted and tired. And some of it might be a biological reason, you know? So encouraging your employees to take care of themselves physically. I have sat in a chair for the last seven months and I usually get up and walk to a waiting room to pick up a patient or escort people out. I will walk to my secretary’s desk. I will move around my office during the day, not huge, but a heck of a lot more than clicking on and clicking off in telehealth appointments. And so I’ve had to sit back and think, how do I fix this even for myself? You know, I’m super excited for my new treadmill desk that’s going to show up next week, that is going to allow me to walk and move while doing video appointments.

Dr. Erin Cornelius (9m 2s):
It is really important to kind of get creative, think outside the box, you know, thank goodness for those wonderful people in New York city who came up with these genius ideas of, you know, shelving mounts and treadmills underneath in tiny places to make me think outside the box.

Edwin K. Morris (9m 18s):
Well, other than getting on Amazon and looking for a great solution like that, you know, in the military we were given, we were forced to take time off. I mean, that was not optional. You didn’t get to roll your time over, you didn’t get to just bank it. You had to use it because there’s a psychological break that has to have happened to make you sharp again. How do we approach that in this world?

Dr. Erin Cornelius (9m 41s):
For, from an employer perspective, you got to model that behavior. You can’t ask your employees to do things that you yourself are not willing to do. Ideally, you’re not asking your employees to do things that you are not willing to do. So practice what you preach. If you want your employees to be sharp, take time off, have a break, encourage them to do so. You know, we have lost our natural markers of time. You know, we usually use holidays and events and weekends and things like that to move time forward for ourselves. And it has just been a big old void of days moving. A lot of employees have not been taking vacation. Cause there’s nowhere to go.

Dr. Erin Cornelius (10m 22s):
You can’t travel. No. What are you going to do? Yeah. Like I don’t want to waste my days and you bank those things and you keep pushing it off until that time of eventually where you’re going to be able to travel again. And the reality is, even if you can’t travel, you need that break now. Do a staycation, you know, be home, check out of things, you know, get creative in some of the ways that you can. People have started camping this year that have never camped before, and probably never will again.

Edwin K. Morris (10m 48s):
I heard that’s been quite a surge.

Dr. Erin Cornelius (10m 50s):
Yeah. But why not? And I think as an employer, you really kind of have to put that out there for your employees. That’s something you encourage, that it is not seen as a weakness because you’re bailing out and you can’t, you know, make it to the end. But really this is about this being a marathon and not a sprint, right? You have to pace yourself along the way. I also had seen this wonderful adaptation from a company that had employees that work in different time zones. You know, people are working longer right now. So there was a study that came out through like the Harvard university’s like economic research group. And that was looking at length of workday and the amount of meetings people were doing. And they found that people were doing more meetings, about 13% more meetings per day than they were previous to COVID.

Dr. Erin Cornelius (11m 35s):
However meetings were lasting about 12% shorter than they were because you’re not having all that kind of like chit chat before. But, the average person’s workday had increased by 48 minutes a day. And that was based upon time of first email sent and last email sent in the day, was how they calculated that. That’s a lot of time, you know, you’re robbing 48 minutes a day from people, that is a lot of time from an employer perspective. You want to model shutting down and turning it off. Have some balance in your workday, you know, don’t steal from your employees like sending that email at 8:30 at night because you happen to think of something.

Dr. Erin Cornelius (12m 15s):
Or the creative solution I’d seen to this, because this company worked in a various time zones, The CEO had put a disclaimer on the bottom of his email and you know how people typically have a confidentiality notice, that said, please do not feel obligated to respond to this email if it is outside of your normal working hours and really setting the tone. So, you know, we have to make some of these adaptations and again, really consider what the human experience is for all these people going through this.

Edwin K. Morris (12m 44s):
So what’s the future?

Dr. Erin Cornelius (12m 44s):
I wish I had that news. I wish I had that crystal ball. I think that humans are more resilient than we give ourselves credit for sometimes. I think that there are a lot of opportunities in this situation to make some changes for the better. I think there are certainly going to be some things that once we get out of this, all of us are gonna be like, I never want to do that or see that again. But I think overwhelmingly you can put some energy into finding the good things where you can.

Edwin K. Morris (13m 17s):
You got to reframe it, come at it at a different angle.

Dr. Erin Cornelius (13m 21s):
So it’s happening, it’s happening regardless. Right? So you have a choice in how you approach it, right? So pretending that it’s not occurring or being negative about it, or thinking of all the things that aren’t working is only going to cause harm to you and to those around you, because it’s not going to change the fact that it’s happening. You know, a lot of research out there that talks about, you know, optimism versus pessimism and which ones are most effected. And the reality is is those who do the best are what we call a realistic optimist, which is prepare for worst and hope for the best. You’ve got to be able to put some good perspective on things, even if you’re doing things that let you know that there, the possibility exists that negative things will come.

Dr. Erin Cornelius (14m 0s):
I would add on that. You want to encourage your employees to be nice to themselves. You know, I think that that is really important and it’s like a small thing, but managing multiple roles, you know, people are spouses, parents, child, friends, siblings, caretaker, – that’s hard. Doing it in a pandemic is ridiculously hard, you know, and at times might feel impossible. And so I think you really want to encourage people to be nice to themselves so that they can make it through this situation and come out the other side, you know, with some life lessons, you know, really an opportunity, you know, in the field of psychology, there’s a concept called post-traumatic growth.

Dr. Erin Cornelius (14m 44s):
When you think about, you know, PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder, that is a reaction to a traumatic event that tends to cause significant distress for an individual. But there’s also the concept of post-traumatic growth, which means once you come through a traumatic event, what have you gained from it that improves your life? Like the typical example might be like a person who has been diagnosed with cancer. You know, that can be a very traumatic experience for somebody, but that diagnosis may prompt them to repair relationships that had been harmed in the past, or may prompt them to make some life changes that give them an opportunity to have experiences that they’ve been putting off. Right. So there is a concept here that even though this situation is really tough, there’s absolutely the opportunity for some positives to come out of it on the other side.

Edwin K. Morris (15m 31s):
Well, on this gift of what you’ve just provided for us today is that hopefully the self reflected awareness and outwardly is around empathy as you, you talked about it. Cause I think that empathy is the, is the mortar that holds all those pieces together

Dr. Erin Cornelius (15m 48s):
Well, and absolutely, especially if you work in an industry that is very sales and relationship focused, you got to think about the people part of it. You’ve got to really consider the other’s perspective. I mean that the cut and dry definition of empathy is put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You know, when you have to make some tough decisions around managing a business in a pandemic, you also have to consider the variety of perspectives that go into managing that business in a pandemic.

Edwin K. Morris (16m 14s):
Thank you. And thank you for being here again, to help us through this pandemic and providing your expertise.

Dr. Erin Cornelius (16m 21s):
My pleasure. I hope eventually I get to talk to you guys without talking about a pandemic.

Edwin K. Morris (16m 33s):
I agree. Thanks for listening to this edition of the trusted advisor podcast brought to you by Iroquois group. Iroquois, your trusted advisor for all things, insurance, and remember get out of the office and sell. I am Edwin K. Morris, and I invite you to join me for the next edition of the trusted advisor podcast.