As many of us shelter in place, we may begin to feel frustration and wonder what good it does to stay at home for an indefinite period of time, especially if the interruption threatens our livelihood. In this unprecedented moment in history, we suddenly depend on simple human behaviors for our deliverance from a pandemic. Our actions are currently the only “vaccine” we have at our disposal, and while they might seem inadequate or even economically damaging, like many vaccines, they are most effective when universally administered.
Staying home is not the only way we can help others. We can avoid hoarding medical supplies or even daily essential items, effectively circuit-breaking the self-fulfilling panic that has produced scarcity in stores and hospitals. Again, this behavior is only as effective as the number of people who participate. Our actions this year can become the catalysts to a kind of nonmedical “herd immunity,” the ideal condition of a population in which enough people have been vaccinated or developed immunity to eradicate a disease.
It may sound strange to compare human behavior to a vaccine. However, as our beneficial actions grow, they not only strengthen our immediate well-being but also contribute to a larger resistance to the damaging consequences of this virus. What’s more, doing the right thing has a momentum in and of itself. It influences, reassures, and restores hope among others who may feel susceptible to despair. While I obviously can’t speak to the science of epidemiology with any authority, as an HR consultant I can certainly attest to inspirational behaviors restoring engagement and general happiness in the workplace and beyond.
One of my clients right now is an organization in an industry that has largely been shut down because of its risk of spreading COVID-19. For my clients and their employees, this is a potentially devastating period of time. They have done nothing wrong—on the contrary. Prior to the pandemic, they were profitable, branching out, and considered a desirable place to work. But for now, the coronavirus has changed everything overnight for the entire industry.
Still, I draw hope from the continuity of genuine kindness in the larger world, even among workers whose lives have been so profoundly altered. At work, these employees depended on the principles of genuine kindness in order to stay fulfilled, engaged, and productive. They have brought their positive habits into a broader context as they keep in touch on internal social media.
Without knowing how successful my idea would be, I suggested they establish a fund made up of voluntary payroll deductions that could help others within the organization who have been more deeply affected by the suspension of work. So far, $30,000 have been raised, and with this amount, the organization has organized toilet paper pick-up stations at the branches for their employees and distributed $100 grocery gift cards to furloughed workers. While not solving every problem, the program helps reduce the dispiriting obstacles faced by most people during this crisis.
Individual actions have also demonstrated kindness and the power of a workplace community. A furloughed worker at one branch heard from her father, a waste and recycling collector, that he and his coworkers were running low on disposable gloves and hand sanitizer. Employees in the waste industry are considered essential, and while so many of us stay home, they must continue doing what they always do, exposing themselves to the risk of contagion. On behalf of her father, she asked for help through her work network, and her coworkers have responded with donations and helpful suggestions. Their former workplace is now a virtual resource for helping others in the greater community.
This generosity did not magically appear. These workers already participated in a culture of genuine kindness at their organization, and they apply those principles to demands outside of work even as they confront frightening uncertainty in their own professional futures. Engaging in this generosity has helped assuage fears and combat helplessness in the face of crisis. As these small but powerful gestures gather momentum, perhaps we can reach a point where we are all immunized from despair.