Q: I am a software engineer and have been a U.S. resident for 14 years along with my wife and two teenagers. In spring 2020, my father in India passed away. On account of COVID conditions and my asthma, I wasn’t able to travel to India to be with my mother. Because of this, it has been very difficult for me to focus on work, and my productivity has been heavily impacted. I currently work on a visa; my family cannot stay in this country without my job, and it’s difficult for me to change employers, although I’m trying to change groups within my company.
I have been on anxiety medications, and I have been receiving therapy and job coaching, as well. Despite all this, I’m facing pervasive burnout and desperately need a break from work. However, I am trying to save my leave for an eventual trip to India, and I don’t want to upset my manager by taking too many breaks. I have tried to be transparent with my manager about my condition and my plans, but I am not getting the support I would have expected.
Can you please advise me on actions I can take to better handle these conditions?
A: One of the cruelest legacies of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has physically cut us off from loved ones when we most need to seek and share comfort with them. An added cruelty is that we’re expected to continue functioning and paying bills as though nothing were wrong.
In your case — and I’m speculating here, so feel free to disregard if I’m off base — add the background noise of being a noncitizen of South Asian descent in a country where xenophobic, white supremacist rhetoric and violence are at a fever pitch. Not to mention the constant threat of being expelled from this country as soon as you stop generating profits for your employer.
That is a horrifying amount of grief, stress and fear to be carrying even without the threat of COVID-19. No wonder you can’t focus.
When you’re buried in conflicting emotions, stressors and fears, all you can do is triage what you can and can’t control. Another position with a more understanding boss would be great — but that option is largely outside your control, and your focus would still be hampered by COVID stress, plus having to learn a new job.
Your current job is the one thing you have some degree of influence over. And, after your health, it’s also the thing you can least afford to lose.
First, accept the unfortunate reality that you cannot expect more support from your boss, and set aside further mention of nonwork matters. (Exception: If you’re establishing the need for a legally protected accommodation or benefit such as job-protected medical leave, then you may need to speak up explicitly about your mental health and provide documentation from your doctor. An employment lawyer can advise you on when that may be necessary.)
Next you must find a way to compartmentalize and focus your limited energies on doing the tasks your boss cares most about — stuff that keeps you from getting fired. If you’re working from home, you may have to find ways to artificially flip your mental switch to work mode — taking a walk before settling at your desk, or putting on an ironed button-down shirt, or breaking your day into 45-minute “sprints” of work. Your coach may have more suggestions.
Outside of work, here are some tips I have heard and used to stave off despair:
• Use some of the leave you’re saving. International travel — particularly to India, which is undergoing another devastating wave of coronavirus infections — is not going to be possible for some time. Figure out when you can afford to take days off — between projects, during a slow period — clear it with your boss, and fully disconnect from work.
• Know that even though your pain is uniquely yours, you’re not alone in suffering. Acknowledging another person’s burden, or expressing gratitude to someone who has supported you, reinforces the bonds that keep us all afloat. A grief support group or a cohort of peers in your situation can be a good raft.
• Trust that it won’t be like this forever. If there’s any comfort to be had, it’s in knowing that things will change.