HRM speaks with the first Canadian to walk in space, Chris Hadfield, and Australia’s first NASA astronaut, Andrew Thomas about how to survive self-isolation.
In this moment when we’re all called upon to stay home, it can feel like the days are blurring together. You’re bored and restless and your cravings for the simple things in life – interaction with colleagues, a hug from a loved one, and even the morning commute – intensify as the days roll on. But imagine if when you looked out your window right now that all you could see was the vastness of space.
This was the isolation experience of Chris Hadfield, Canada’s first man to walk in space, and Andrew Thomas, Australia’s first NASA astronaut in space.
Even though their careers as astronauts spanned a combined four decades, during that time they each only spent around 140 days in space. For a lot of the rest of their careers, they were preparing their minds and bodies for those five months.
For example, Hadfield says he and his crew ran through multiple scenarios to test their physical and psychological responses. They underwent desert and mountain survival situations, and they even spent two weeks living at the bottom of the ocean.
To them, being told to quarantine at home must seem laughably easy. But they do have advice for those of us who haven’t had decades to mentally prepare ourselves.
Fear versus danger
A huge part of preparing oneself for isolation is to acknowledge that our current experience is abnormal, says Hadfield.
He says tens and thousands of COVID-19 deaths is a troubling statistic. But tens and thousands of people die from various causes every other day. The difference now is that we can attribute that increasing number of COVID-19 deaths to a threat against ourselves.
“That’s not much different to the life of an astronaut,” says Hadfield. “You have this huge, vague, omnipresent and real danger, and your life is hugely disrupted.”
So how do we deal with that fear?
He says first step is to understand the difference between danger and fear, because they’re not synonymous.
“You live with dangers all the time that you’ve learnt to handle. Like riding a bike. That can be dangerous. You could break your skull and die. But you’ve learnt to be a good bike rider. And now, even though the danger is exactly the same, you are no longer afraid, because you’re competent.”
Hadfield suggests you take the time to seek reliable information from health authorities and become a local expert about the virus. Learn to better distinguish between real life risks and perceived danger.
“Don’t be afraid of this big amorphous thing. Because if you don’t know what to be afraid of then everything is frightening. Nervousness colours the way you react, it even colours your health.”
Trust will bring you together
When Andrew Thomas boarded the Russian Mir space station in 1998 for his 140 day mission, he was joining two Russian cosmonauts who’d already been there for some months. He’d not met them before and neither of them could speak English. Thomas had spent the year prior learning Russian to ensure he was able to understand the technical terms, but socialising was difficult.
“I was quite formal in how I’d talk about things,” says Thomas. “It was challenging for me to be spontaneous and sociable in Russian. I didn’t have enough colour in my language to do that properly.”
While Thomas was born in Adelaide, he is also a US citizen. When you think of Russia, America and space, trust probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind.
“The NASA presence on a Russian space station was a sensitive topic. It was almost unthinkable at the time. I was basically a guest on the space station and I had to remember that.”
The language barrier and initial distrust made for an alienating few weeks on Mir. In the end, it was a terrifying event that broke down their barriers.
“About five weeks in we had a fire onboard. They put it out but it filled the cabin with smoke. You can’t just open a window to let fresh air in, so we lived in a smoky environment for quite some time.
“It was a bit scary, but it enabled me to build a special rapport with my commander. In his eyes, the fire reflected very badly on him. He was concerned I was going to tell NASA all of these bad things.
“I wasn’t about to do that. I was actually very supportive of him. When he realised I wasn’t going to cast aspersions on him, he was greatly relieved. That went a long way to improving our crew cohesion.”
The dominant message being spread throughout this pandemic – other than ‘wash your hands’ – is that we’re all in this together. We’ve seen that on display in the nationwide applause for the UK’s NHS workers, in the virtual choirs spreading a message of hope and from the rhetoric of governments and health authorities.
The same message applies to our workplaces.
Astronauts spend a great deal of time researching historical expeditions, including pre-20th century explorations of the sea and polar ice caps. What Thomas took from this research was the importance of team cohesion, strong team rapport and supportive leadership.
“If crew cohesion breaks down, failure is almost always the outcome. That was certainly demonstrated very dramatically in the mission of the HMS Bounty in the 18th century with the mutiny that took place in Tahiti.
“The bottom line is that we have to work together for the wellbeing of everyone.”
Learn to be in control of time
Thomas made a major mistake on Mir. He took a calendar. He would mark off the days, like a prisoner in a cell.
“That turned out to be a really stupid thing to do,” he says. “After about a week, I threw the calendar away. You don’t want the experience of just sitting and counting down to your departure. That just makes it an awful experience.”
After he canned the calendar, he forgot about the tribulations of life on earth and focused on the present moment. “It was quite liberating. I found that time flowed quite effortlessly.”
The flow of time was so smooth that when he received a call from the ground announcing it was his 100th day in space, he couldn’t believe it.
“I was absolutely stunned. It had all gone so effortless and smoothly because I changed my way of thinking about my terrestrial connections and just focused on the environment that I was in,” says Thomas.
“I started to think ‘this is going to come to an end soon, so I need to make the most of it. This is an absolutely bizarre and unique thing to be doing. There’s no one on the planet who could be doing something quite as unique as this.'”
Knowing that there was a predetermined end date helped. That’s not something those of us in isolation have at the moment. Hadfield says the key to getting through long periods of isolation is to be events-driven in your thinking and not to pin your hopes on an end date.
“If you’ve been told you’re going to be in lockdown for 21 days and 17 days in the government says it’s another 21 days, you’ve put your hopes and dreams in that 21 day period. You have to give yourself a flexible plan. As soon as you start counting the days, you’re dooming yourself to dreading the days.”
Making the transition to working from home can be difficult. Hear from human performance researcher Dr Adam Fraser who will take you through the latest research and help you to get work done, not go insane and continue liking your family in a webinar hosted by the Australian Human Resources Institute on Thursday 9th of April at 12:25pm. This webinar is free for AHRI members.
The power of routine and meaningful work
Both Hadfield and Thomas suggest trying to keep as much of your normal routine alive when you’re in isolation, or do your best to mimic it.
Hadfield suggests breaking your day into chunks and following a pattern. Thomas says aligning tasks to your usual five days of work and two days of rest is crucial because “humans are creatures of habit”.
Once you’ve sorted your basic needs – food, hygiene and exercise – start to think about those extras that you can look forward to. Recreation is more important than ever.
Drawing, reading and watching films was something Thomas looked forward to in space. Demonstrating that he hasn’t lost his Australian sense of humour, he recalls bringing the Monty Python book ‘A complete waste of time’ into space with him.
“I thought, ‘what could be more useful on a space station’?” he laughs.
What you want to avoid is what Thomas refers to as ‘Groundhog Day Syndrome’ – those in quarantine and self-isolation (the latter should be most of us) will know this feeling well.
“Every day is like every other day,” he says. “You can fall into a trap. The lead character in the movie Groundhog Day fought against an environment and did not do very well. It was when he accepted his environment and used it creatively that he thrived. That’s the metaphor I use for space flight. You want to use your time creatively and productively.”
In first space trips up until the 80s, Hadfield says there was poor scheduling. The astronauts either had too much or not enough to do. Neither are sustainable in the long run.
A crucial part of your routine in isolation, they both say, is meaningful work.
Thomas says there were times where he was given ‘make-work’ to keep him busy and this wasn’t at all helpful.
“You’ve got to have real work that is contributory,” says Thomas. “This is a lesson that’s been learned from exploration missions of the past. Great leaders like [Ernest] Shackleton and [Roald] Amundsen who went to the South Pole knew how to give work to their team that was meaningful… that went a long way in creating an emotional investment for the crew members. It gives you a sense of importance and that what you do matters.”
For example, if you’re not currently working, mimic your work day by taking on a new project or hobby of some kind, so you’re still moving toward something tangible and ending each day with a level of satisfaction.
“This pandemic has occurred when we’ve got social connectivity and [easy access to] information. Had it been even ten years ago, when these things weren’t as established… it would be much harder on people,” says Thomas.
Work with purpose is a huge reliever for the stresses of confinement.
Giving people space, in space
When you’re confined with others it’s inevitable that conflict will arise. Your patience is thinner, your fuse shorter.
The astronauts’ methods for dealing with conflict aren’t different to those we use on Earth, but they become vastly more important when you’ve literally got nowhere else to go.
“Conflict arises if you cross the personal boundaries of another individual,” says Thomas. “You have to respect their boundaries. If someone raises a topic that you find antagonistic or provocative, for example a political comment, you have to let it go. Don’t let it ignite a spark.”
Hadfield says it’s important to cut people some slack. No one is going to be acting completely normal at the moment.
“Maybe you’ll notice that everyone in your family is acting like a jerk. That’s probably a good indication that you’re the jerk. Use that as a mirror,” he says.
Coming back to earth
Being weightless 24-7 for months at a time does strange things to your body and it needs to learn how to readjust. But from a social perspective, both astronauts found it quite easy to reintegrate with society. There were plenty of people to catch up with, interviews to do and debriefings to be had. No doubt our experiences of reintegration will be quite similar (sans the individual press tours).
Forever the optimist, Hadfield says there’s something quite beautiful about our current experience. It’s a rare moment in history when the entire world has a common enemy.
“That means we can have a common purpose. That’s an immensely unifying thing.”
He encourages us each to bring that sense of unification into our own spheres of influence – be that our homes or (virtual) workplaces. Think of these places as little space stations and take the time to really think about what you need to do in order to have a safe environment and a cohesive crew.
Most importantly, Hadfield says, it’s important that governments, workplaces and the media institutionalise the lessons from this pandemic so we are ready for the next one.
“This pandemic is going to cause irreversible changes. In some cases that comes down to life or death. For most of us it’s a huge opportunity to learn.
“But ten years from now, if we don’t institutionalise these lessons, we’ll be relying on individual memory and it’s very easy for humans to forget pain.”