What the Third Phase of Isolation Means For Human Needs, Motivation and Emotion

Lockdown measures have been in place for months now, and we’re fast discovering that a new reality can be a confronting, and at times a lonely one. What might have originally appeared as a new and unusual way of operating has now become the new reality, which, in the absence of a firm timeline on the reopening of the country can potentially cause turmoil to the human psyche.  

Research that was published a number of years ago now has become extremely timely and topical, after studies on astronauts, crews on submarines and researchers working in polar bunkers sheds light on how the human mind copes with long periods of social isolation. 

A large body of this research points to what is known as the ‘quarters’ of isolation, which, as you can imagine are split into four segments. According to recent reports from the ABC, we’re entering the third phase of this isolation, which is where a large number of individuals have, in the past, reported feelings of anxiety, social isolation and a lack of productivity. This was first identified by academics in the 1980s that were researching the impact of long periods of isolation in space.

One review noted that “typically, mood and morale reach their [lowest point] somewhere between the one-half and two-thirds mark of the mission.” This, in addition to an extract from 1985-published book “Living Aloft: Human Requirements for Extended Spaceflight” notes that “these are a first stage of heightened anxiety, a second stage of settling down to routine marked by depression, and a third stage of anticipation marked by emotional outbursts, aggressiveness and rowdy behaviour.” 

Dr Kimberly Norris of the University of Tasmania is one such expert quoted by the ABC’s James Purtill, who says that those around the world have now passed through the first two stages of isolation. The first, Norris says, is plagued by panic and hysteria of the unknown, and where we saw supermarket shelves emptied by hoarders looking to ensure they had adequate food and, for some unknown reason, toilet paper on hand. The second phase of isolation, Norris explains, is referred to as the ‘honeymoon’ phase, where the novelty of staying home, working remotely and not spending time on a daily work commute is new and exciting. 

“For a little while people were saying how they were loving working in pajamas, and not having to battle morning traffic,” Norris said. “People are now saying they’re feeling really lonely,” she added, pointing out that this is clear evidence that workers around the globe are entering the third, potentially damaging phase of isolation. “They’re saying they can’t remember the last time they interacted with someone in a way they found personally meaningful,” and this can wreak havoc to a human’s psyche.

In that third phase, individuals often report a slump in motivation, days dragging out, resentment toward themselves and the people around them, and in some cases, extremely damaging thoughts of depression in the absence of physical human interactions with people outside their household. 

Norris pointed an example of a Russian cosmonaut, Valentin Lebedev who wrote a series of diary entries during his 211 days in space aboard the International Space Station. “We don’t understand what’s going on with us,” he wrote, “we silently walk by each other, feeling offended. We have to find some way to make things better.” She also noted a study from 2000 that analysed a group of individuals based at an Antarctic research station that reported increasing tensions between individuals - particularly in the third phase of their time in the Antarctic - stemming from loneliness. 

According to journalist James Putrill, “crucially, they found that this third stage depends on the relative passage of time - in a six-month mission it could happen at around the four-month mark, while in a one-year posting it might appear at the eight-month period.” 

Dr Norris brought it back to the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, stating that “people who see the curve flattening think we’ve done it, we’ve beaten it… that’s the signal that it’s not long now. That re-energises hope,” she said. The problem remaining, however, is that flattening the curve doesn’t guarantee any loosening of restrictions for now, so we’re left in somewhat of a state of limbo. Dr Norris says that in the absence of a firm date, anticipation builds. “That in itself can cause a lot of distress. People have spent months there and are prepared to re-enter the world,” which can cause a huge amount of stress. 

“When you drill down into these isolated and confined environments like space stations, submarines and Antarctica, interpersonal conflict is the number one reason for dissatisfaction and unhappiness...the frequency with which it occurs increases the longer you’ve been isolated.” 

“All things that would energise people and assist them to function effectively have been taken away so this is a genuinely hard thing to go through,” Norris said, adding that “anybody who is experiencing anything difficult is a normal reaction to an abnormal environment.”

Dr Norris concluded with a glass half full approach to recent events, stating that a large portion of individuals that have gone through extended periods of social isolation said the time had taught them important values and built character. “When people have to sit back and think, it allows them to figure out what’s important to them.”

“That’s why, post-COVID, we will see differences in the way people engage with each other, in the way people work, in the priorities given to the environment, and the way people think about travel,” she said. “A lot of people expect spirituality to increase… all our data to date indicates that it does not - at least, not in Western societies. Instead, people have better personal relationships,” she concluded. 

Just a few days ago, Brian Chesky, the embattled CEO of Airbnb added to this sentiment, stating that he expects the platform to pivot and transform into a service provider that caters to the needs of a post-COVID public. “Travel in this new world will look different,” he said, “people will want options that are closer to home, safer, and more affordable. But people will also yearn for something that feels like it’s been taken away from them- human connection.” 

 Andrea Beattie, one of the editors at LinkedIn has written that “Zoom fatigue, homeschooling young children and working at a makeshift home office are factors combining to make workers yearn for the office, say, workplace experts.”

“Despite some positive signs remote working led to greater productivity, restrictions of choice and physical disconnection means employees put in longer hours, are less productive and crave interactions with colleagues.”

In terms of possible solutions, Beattie notes that it’s important to “exercise regularly, trying to set work-life boundaries and reward yourself with something guilt-free reach day,” in order to stay on top of possible anxiety, isolation or creative slumps that might prevail as you work from home.  

We can see that there will be a radical transformation to the way in which we operate in the future, which should spark a number of organisations to pivot and take advantage of the changing needs of a post-COVID public. 

Personally, I look forward to seeing how the business industry will accommodate the new needs and requirements of a global community that has sacrificed, compromised and risen to the challenge. 

It’s a battered cliche at this point, but it rings true: we’ll pull each other through this. 

Please remember to check in with your friends and loved ones over the coming days and weeks. 

Thanks for your time,

Kobi Simmat

Director & CEO of the Best Practice Group. 

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