The VUCA world and COVID19

Lihanna Borhan, PhD

“VUCA” was a term coined in the late 1980s, initially used to describe the uncertainty of the business world. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – the idea that the world is changing at a very fast pace and the change may not be as expected. But we have to be ready.

And that perfectly sums up the world today.

VUCA was coined when the term “coronavirus” would most likely be heard only in the medical and academic establishments – it is not a lay-person term. But today, this is a term even young children may mention, and may even understand better than others how scary it can be. And COVID19 has certainly made today’s world a VUCA world.

In Malaysia, at a time when we thought we were going to win the fight against COVID19 and join the ranks of countries like New Zealand, we started seeing the number not just rising, but exploding. When we thought life would get back to some semblance of normality — schools have started to open, universities were preparing for in-person classes come the next academic year, it is back to remote learning, with very ambiguous scenario of when they will be back to in-person sessions, and what these in-person sessions will look like. Organizations were starting to function at full strength, albeit with all the SOPs in place, screen fatigue (zoom/meet/teams etc) seemed to be a memory, and we are now back to dealing with screen fatigue and possible feelings of isolation yet again. Businesses were picking up, and now they are facing the prospect of shutting down altogether. 

And the numbers keep going up. At one time, a COVID19 patient was someone you heard about because you kept up with your social media so you knew of “a friend of a friend of a friend” who got COVID19. Now, the chances are you would have personally known someone who was a COVID19 patient, you may even have been a close contact. In fact, what is scarier now, is that you would probably also personally know someone who died from COVID19. 

All this, while we try to conform to the SOPs, while more people are getting vaccinated. 

A VUCA world may be a thrilling world when you are looking at different potential scenarios, each of which are exciting. But COVID19 has brought a gloomy element to the VUCA world. It is therefore, unsurprising when mental health cases rose last year; and with the current scenario, it is expected that we will also see another hike of mental health cases, or that the cases have become more severe. 

(Advisory: If you need to seek professional help, please do so immediately – do not wait until “later”)

The following tips are for those of us who have started to feel more distressed and would like some coping strategies.

The above explanation on the VUCA world is part of a cognitive-behaviourist approach, to be better able to handle our stresses and distresses, it helps to understand the sources of our distress. 

For many, not knowing what will happen next is distressing. I am not talking about the number of cases per day, but more on not being able to plan ahead with regard to your personal goals. My suggestion is not to give up, but have a plan that is flexible, that is adaptable to whatever the world throws at you. Don’t work out the details that are beyond your control, even if you’re a detail-oriented person, instead focus on the things you can control. Plan to get married, but don’t plan the details of the wedding, instead prepare for life after the wedding. Plan to start a new venture, but don’t plan on the launching details, instead prep up on the skill sets you will need. Plan to further your studies, look up the various options available, do scenario planning. 

The number of new cases and deaths are indeed anxiety-inducing. What if we never get to see our loved ones again? What if they get COVID and die? What if we get COVID and die? STOP. This train of thoughts is not helping. Focus on the here and now. Keep the bond alive, physical togetherness may not be possible, but we at least have technology to help us through. True, it is not the same, but lamenting the fact will not help us ride through these trying times. Be creative with our virtual meetings. Instead of constantly talking, have ‘down times’ – just connect, have the camera on, and you spend your time doing things in your side, they spend their time doing something on their side. Send love letters (or love tweets in contemporary times!). Don’t be hesitant to reach out to someone. 

In this truly VUCA time, we focus on making the best of what we can control. We do what we can — thought-wise, action-wise, prayer-wise.

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