Since March 2020 businesses have had some major hurdles to jump.  Many of these hurdles have been some pretty high ones.

By KATE SERODIO, DPT – Owner/Physical Therapist Hampton Physical Therapy & Rezilient

No one is spared personal hardships during this difficult pandemic. From the fear of contracting the virus to the tough convalescence of those who do, not to mention the devastation of losing a loved one to it. There are so many new adjustments to deal with, like working from home or being laid off. Having to home-school kids is a huge challenge too. For those of us ‘essential workers,’ it’s been extremely challenging as well.

As a business owner, I have experienced the complete shutdown of a non-essential business (Rezilient) as well as the struggle of remaining open as an essential business (Hampton Physical Therapy). It’s been nothing but endless hurdles. The struggles of a complete shutdown then reopening is basically like starting a business from scratch. While remaining open during the pandemic with a skeleton crew certainly had its own challenges. From battling with the ever-changing CDC guidelines to the additional work needed to provide a safe environment, to the laying off /rehiring of staff (with some pushback due to the unemployment stimulus funds they were receiving). Unfortunately, my businesses just aren’t Pandemic Proof.

Sadly, the continued emphasis from patients hasn’t been about how great a service we provide, but instead whether our business is safe and clean and worth the risk. The fear is understandable. Many months into Covid-19 and I still find there is still so much time and energy devoted to this virus that the true goal of the business has lessened.

As we treat patients and clients daily there is one other elephant in the room that is hindering us from connecting, yes, the MASK! The mask obviously has its purpose to prevent the spread but it is affecting us on a whole other level, a mental and emotional level. The mask is a constant reminder that we are in a pandemic. When a primary part of a business is about connecting with people, the facial emotional barrier of masks is yet another hurdle that we must overcome.

A huge part of providing a Great service is the ability to connect with people. Whether you’re a greeter, a waitress, a hairdresser, or a doctor you need facial visual input in order to read their reaction to your questions or comments. Their response is what drives the direction of a conversation. The mask in effect, makes you feel as if you’re talking to a wall. Yes, the eyes are expressive, but I’m finding the mouth is what I often check for nonverbal cues as to how my patient is doing. Consequently, this is a huge barrier to business as this is a fundamental of great customer service. What was once transparent is now a guessing game, an added obstacle on top of accomplishing your job.

Since the first day, I started wearing a mask back in March while treating patients I have personally felt less emotion. Perhaps even less empathetic to my patient’s needs. I believe this is because I can’t see their feelings or pain or smile, and I know they can’t see mine, so why bother. The lack of this input easily makes you have less emotion. Not only does this affect the provider but it also affects the client/patient. Research supports this: a BMC randomized control study in 2013 “Effect of facemasks on the empathy and relational continuity” found that “patients perceived doctors who wear masks as less caring and empathetic.”

Another interesting article that supports our struggles with masks and emotions is from Trends Neuroscience Education: “Masked Education? The benefits and burdens of wearing face masks in schools during the current virus pandemic.” This is an interesting article on many levels. One topic they discuss is how the face provides a universal language for communication, in particular, the communication of emotions. The mouth region on a face conveys information that is crucial for smiling, i.e., a positive emotion, which can work as a social glue and facilitates positive social cognition and action. Not seeing the bottom half of the face makes it particularly difficult to recognize a mask wearer’s positive emotions – pleasure, joy, happiness, amusement, sociability, and friendliness – as they are basically communicated by a smiling mouth. Therefore, face masks impair mainly our positive social interactions and our ability to understand and empathize with one another.

Some other added struggles that the mask, unfortunately, results in is a muffled voice. Many people with hearing impairment are having an even harder time communicating because of the muffled voice as well as the inability to read lips.

Many people that don’t even have a hearing problem are finding that they suddenly can’t understand anyone. A number of my patients are misinterpreting what I’ve said, it’s often like we’re playing a game of telephone where the message is completely distorted by the end of the conversation. Who knows how many people I’ve somehow offended! There are many times that I assume someone didn’t hear me and I go to repeat myself, only to find out that they did hear me but were making a thinking face that I wasn’t able to pick up on. The normal conversation just simply doesn’t flow as it used to or should, leaving a feeling of complete disconnect.

In my profession, recognizing feelings is extremely important. In a profession where you provide hands-on services, you’re no longer able to gauge from their facial expression if you’re physically hurting them. So many cues that we have all become accustomed to are no longer available. The inability to see feelings on someone’s face and the inability to express my own feelings with a smile is a huge hurdle for me and my business.

So, whether you’re a business owner or an employee trying to provide a service and make sure you’re able to continue to connect with your clients you need to overcome the mask. Since March these are some of the things I’ve found useful:

1) Focus on the eyes. Attempt to read theirs and utilize your own when smiling.

2) The mask sometimes feels like the elephant in the room, so just get it out there, and talk about it. Talk about the mask and how it creates a disconnect, people will agree with you and you’ll connect. Having a conversation about how the mask affects your peripheral vision will open up a possible connection. I actually fell off the treatment table because I couldn’t see down. Have the mask be your first thing in common. It will open doors up for further discussions. Another good topic is talking about all the great things the masks do:

– don’t have to stress about food in your teeth

– if you have bad breath, no one will know

– only need eye make up

– the obvious… fewer germs spread

– this list hasn’t gotten that long… we all agree it’s short but have a fun time trying to come up with positives-send them my way if you have more 🙂

3) Mask fitting: make sure your mask doesn’t hit your lips, this muffles your voice even more and makes it difficult to hear which will complicate connecting even more.

4) Give people a visual of yourself-perhaps a business card with a picture of yourself. This will allow them to feel more connected as they’ll be able to build a mental image of you

5) Wear a clear fitted mask: A clear mask for you would eliminate ½ of the problem. You’ll still struggle to get visual feedback from them, but you’ll at least be able to smile with them knowing and allow for a connection and better communication. This would also assist someone who often needs to read lips.

*FYI this is not a shield, these do not provide the level of protection most are seeking.

6) More gestures! Air hugs: I used to give hugs, now I tell them I would love to give them a hug but I suppose an air hug will do. Hand Air Shakes: handshakes are definitely out but an air shake and just a big greeting will do. Thumbs up or head nods, all are useful to connect.

9) Discuss the need to Communicate: if you have a business that you need to know if you’re hurting someone, have a discussion about communicating. Make sure they understand their role is to speak up if they’re not happy.

10) Try harder: you have to simply try harder, dig deeper to connect. Know it and own it.

11) Mask messages – purchase one with a smile on it or a positive quote. Believe it or not, this can be powerful and allow a connection.

12) Encourage people to buy clear masks-this will allow us to feel as normal as we can in the present.

We all need to be resilient. We must accept that this is potentially our new reality and you must figure a way to overcome it. Hurdle after hurdle, whether small or big, we must move forward. I encourage you to Be Rezilient!

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3879648/

Trends Neurosci Educ. 2020 Sep; 20: 100138.

Published online 2020 Aug 11. doi: 10.1016/j.tine.2020.100138

PMCID: PMC7417296 Masked education? The benefits and burdens of wearing face masks in schools during the current Corona pandemic

Manfred Spitzer1