Working during the pandemic is a lot like being in space

Employees working from home experience stress, loneliness, and anxiety, yet this is not dissimilar to what astronauts experience in space. Neta Parnas-Vizel, a sociologist explains how to resolve that and more

Udi Etsion 16:1701.11.20
The 71st International Astronautical Congress, which is both the largest and most important annual conference in the field of space exploration took place last month. Although it was scheduled to take place in Dubai, due to coronavirus (Covid-19) constraints it was held virtually, which allowed Israeli officials to participate as well. Even though Israel has signed a peace agreement with the UAE, it is still difficult for people in sensitive defense-related positions to travel to the Emirates.


Israel is now leading the aerospace industry with giants like Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. and Elbit Systems Ltd. The “new space” revolution has also dramatically changed the sector, making it cheaper to develop and launch satellites, and changed the Israeli scene as well.


Astronauts simulate conditions on Mars in the Negev desert. Photo: Avishag Shaar Yishuv Astronauts simulate conditions on Mars in the Negev desert. Photo: Avishag Shaar Yishuv


Human activity in space has also been affected by the changes. Recently, NASA announced that it plans to send its first human space mission to Mars by 2035. Preparations include not only developing the technology aboard spacecraft that will land on the red planet, but also significant psychological research on the effect it may have on humans. It takes nine months to reach our planetary neighbor, compared to the three-day-long trip to the moon. Activity on Mars will also continue for several months, since it is located anywhere between 40 and 400 million km away from Earth. It takes anywhere between two and 22 minutes for a message to reach Earth.


Some of these studies are being carried out at the Mars simulation center, D-MARS, which is located in the Ramon Crater in Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev desert. The location is very similar to the Martian surface due to its remoteness and its desert-like conditions. The center was founded with the assistance of the Israeli Space Agency (ISA), a division of the Ministry of Science and Technology, and this month was meant to hold an isolation session, where six “astronauts” would simulate a mission in space that was canceled due to the coronavirus.


Maintaining a high level of performance


Neta Parnas-Vizel, who is a lecturer at the International Space University and head of the Behavioral Sciences Division at D-MARS, spoke at the International Astronautical Congress. “There are a lot of similarities between the uncertainty that the first astronauts will experience on Mars to that which employees are experiencing working during the coronavirus pandemic,” Vizel explained. She is also an organizational sociologist specializing in management and leadership development.


“During a space mission, astronauts need to maintain a high level of performance, despite feelings of loneliness, the difficulty in living within a small confined space, and delayed communication. While the human brain has the ability to constantly adapt to changing conditions and demands in our environment, our cognitive perception and motor operations become impaired. This is especially true when working under pressure, with a heavy workload while being isolated, which can lead to serious health problems, such as insomnia and fatigue.”


Neta Parnas-Vizel, head of the Behavioral Sciences Division at D-MARS Neta Parnas-Vizel, head of the Behavioral Sciences Division at D-MARS


“The coronavirus has created similar pressure on us all. Companies want to continue to function and demand high productivity in uncertain conditions, while most of the employees aren't in the office and work is often not synchronized, most people work odd hours, and the team is not in sync or in touch. Young employees get sucked into their work and are left feeling socially isolated. Parents with children are facing a lot of pressure since they must work from home, and are expected to be sharper and more on top of things than ever. Worrying about employees during these trying times, amid pressure, uncertainty, and while working from home, all boils down to the manager’s responsibility, just like the Operations Manager in Houston who needs to solve the crew’s problems while they’re in space.”


“Communication and workflow need to change with the times, and strengthening work relationships through authentic communication in a team is crucial as is helping each other out. A lot of managers have said to me ‘I feel like I lost my employees, they’re tired of Zoom conversations, and are exhausted.’ Now, small things that weren’t an issue before, are turning into problems. People who have a tendency to feel depressed or anxious, feel so more often. Conflicts within a team or poor management skills that can be easily dealt with on a regular basis, have suddenly become more difficult after a few challenging, tiring months.”


Before the Mars mission takes flight, NASA has also placed an emphasis on the importance of having emotional intelligence. Astronauts aren’t only required to have strong technological capabilities. Now, more than ever, they are required to possess emotional intelligence too.


“Difficulties in leadership and rising conflicts are two weak points,” Vizel said. “Before the pandemic, there were managers who weren’t the best at leading or motivating employees, and interpersonal conflicts are natural in organizations. However, because of the ongoing state of social alienation, uncertainty, high pressure, and demanding workloads, all of these problems which could be solved simply by pulling an employee aside in the hall, with a smile or a simple look, suddenly transformed into real challenges, that demand exceptionally high emotional intelligence which isn’t always innate.”


So what’s the solution? “We need to turn the question around. Instead of asking ‘what do my employees need from me?’, you should be asking, ‘as a manager, what can I do for my employees to ensure that they will be healthy, indispensable, happy, and productive in the long term?’” Vizel says.


According to her, “research shows that certain feelings are associated with high performance. For example, if we feel safe, optimistic, excited, connected, and happy, we become more creative and have higher social intelligence. However, if we feel anxious, annoyed, angry, worried, or experience self-doubt then we are more likely to awaken the ‘fight-or-flight’ physiological response, which doesn't always lead us to making the best decisions.”


So asking a coworker how he or she feels isn't enough?


“Emotional energy management begins by being aware of the people on your team’s feelings, whether that is anxiety, stress, sadness, impulsivity, judgement, defensiveness, or isolation, and demands that you keep your ears open to your employees moods. Show real interest in your team, ask them directly what their needs are, and how to help them in these trying times. At the end of the day, use the tools that are at your disposal to prevent a burnout or exhaustion, and increase their sense of control and influence over work, praise their worth and how their work is significant to the workload output, and show that you care and appreciate your team.”