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Prioritize Tasks: Shaping Your New Normal

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

Guest blog submitted by Dr. Thomas Barker, Professor, Faculty of Extension

University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB Canada and Principal Investigator, Healthy Workplaces for Helping Professions Project

This week’s wellness suggestion is to “prioritize tasks.”  Thank you to the Alberta helping professional who suggested that excellent strategy.  Indeed, task organization, is how helping professionals handle clients and casework amid an intricate meeting-web of kids, government ministers, lawyers, and teachers.  Task organization is a great way to think about the people who need you during crisis times.  Task organization is also a great approach to #understandingstressors  because it can mitigate the harmful effect of role ambiguity and isolation brought on by social and work distancing.

What does it mean to prioritize tasks?

Task organization, in a work context, is the act of choosing one activity over another in terms of job importance, or how crucial the activity is to performing the job of in question.  So you could organize your work around hazards or Covid constraints.  But it might be better to organize things about how you can maintain the best contact with people you need to care about.

In the Healthy Workplaces project we examined workplace stress in terms of your job description, as a way to get a perspective on task priorities.  First assumption:  tasks get put into steps.  We identified a repeatable process, based on the social work service model, that identifies what happens after and before  something else.

But in these times of prolonged crisis, the line between work and life begins to blur.  What else is that except a re-orientation of what’s important, an understanding of the new normal.

What is the new normal

We hear the term “new normal” in the news today, often in the context of business and the economy finding their comfortable curve, their footing, their standards after a disruptive crisis. One international industry mogul I read put it this way:

“It is a world of muted growth in industrial countries and stubbornly high unemployment—one where the private sector continues to deleverage, public finances become more of a concern, and reregulation replaces deregulation. And all this takes place in the context of an accelerated migration of growth and wealth dynamics from industrial to emerging economies.”  Source: Mohamed A. El-Erian Navigating the New Normal in Industrial Countries,  p. 13.

Now, this was in 2010.  Oddly prescient of today’s bleak outlook, I would suggest.

But there are some interesting assumptions surrounding this odd idea.  Who is to say that what we gave up on was “normal” to start with?  Aren’t we always evolving? Who needs normal?  In most useage, however, the term is used to counteract the thinking that underlies limited perspectives like  “Let’s return to normal” as in things-just-the-same-as-before

The idea of the new normal is if the crisis was that catastrophic.  Our work and processes have been disrupted beyond return, we might think.  It’s kind of like a shakehout.  One CTV news story suggests “rear-facing seats” in airplanes, another story discusses the future of call-in grocery shopping.

The phrase new normal,  however, has progressed far beyond this limited, business-like term.  Currently the phrase is used to refer to odd-sounding things like an Internet radio station, an economic self-help book, a TV series, a podcast, and countless other pop culture references.  Just check out #QuarantineLife if you want a glimpse at how new normal thinking has pervaded our society.

Probably the best way to think of the new normal is to think first about the ones you care for and the ones who need your care.  

Guidance for new normal task organization

A simple formula to remember for how to prioritize tasks in the face of complete unknown, is to turn to your job description.  What obstacles to fulfilling that stand in your way?  How will human services, community health work, child and family, and shelter work be altered.  Some might ask, how can we even find our priorities in a vastly changed work environment?

We do not know the shape of the new normalized workplace, but we can start to identify some ingredients of that reality.  That’s the first step in finding your own new normal.  Here are some examples from an article by employer advisors at McCarthy Tetrault:

  1. Social distancing will not go away immediately.  This is the conclusion of the Manitoba Shared Health newsletter.  Work from home measures will persist.  Considerations like logistics, technology, remuneration, and confidentiality and monitoring of productivity will have to be worked out.  WCB in Alberta will be heavily involved in policy developments as workspaces and workplace hazards get redefined.  PPE will be kept handy.

  2. Travel adjustments will not go away.  For most agency employees in our province, out of province and out of country travel is rare.  But those boundaries:  accommodating where a person has been, how they have travelled, how long they have been in the province, will factor into our task organization.

  3. Under-employment and “precarious employment”.  These terms will persist in our vocabulary as long as informal jobs, self-employment, part-time, nonstandard, and contract work are part of the sector.  This says the Canada Without Poverty projections in 2017.   How much more will such changes affect us after Covid?  A blog in Australia suggests, “What if Flexibility Became the New Normal in Post Covid-19?

For many of us, these kinds of sector-wide considerations:  social distancing, travel and alone time, and employment uncertainty can be stressful enough and need to be at least a part of the new normal.  But let’s face it. everybody needs to define his or her own path.  The new normal can be a very personal thing.

How to reorganize?  

In this post we have explored some of the factors that may or may not affect future work in the province.  ALIGN communications are all about new PPE, which seems like it will stick around, to influence how work is organized for some time.  However, let’s think about the advice of Psychology Today Canada, to look clearly at how the crisis is affecting the ones you love and the ones you care for.  They are the ones who look to you to prioritize them.  So let that factor into how you define your new normal.

For more information about wellness in Alberta, visit the Healthy Workplaces Project site. To read more of Tom's blogs, visit the Wellness Links Blog


Thomas Barker, Professor, Faculty of Extension

University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB Canada

Principal Investigator, Healthy Workplaces for Helping Professions Project



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