The New World Ahead

Abstract image of purple gears

Each of us is experiencing the world in a whole new way. New work practices, new modes of engaging with family and friends, new worries, and new approaches to practicing healthy habits.

During this time, the lines between the many roles we play in our day-to-day lives may be blurring. I straddle many roles — director of the leading center of research in computational health and the world’s largest biomedical library, manager, mother, engineer, daughter, friend, researcher, nurse. Each one offers different insights on how I’m coping with what is happening now and what lies ahead. And I’d like to believe that every role I play in life informs and enriches the others, helping me better meet the challenges and demands of each of them.

At the forefront for me these days is my role as a nurse and how it has helped me transform the disruption of the pandemic into one of the most meaningful periods of my life and career.

I’ve told you before that nursing is fundamentally the diagnosis and treatment of the human response to disease, disability, and developmental challenges. There are several theoretical frameworks that help nurses diagnose and treat this human response. One that has particular meaning to my life and career is the work of Dorothea Orem, who developed the Self-Care Deficit Theory of Nursing. Her theory asserts that all individuals face self-care challenges, and every individual has some amount of self-care agency, that is, the skill to initiate or perform the health activities needed to maintain life, health, and well-being.

Nursing steps in when there is a discrepancy between what an individual needs to do to be healthy and the ability of that person to engage in the self-care behaviors necessary to be healthy. A key nursing intervention focuses on creating an environment that supports development.

I’ve also shared how I integrate a focus on the environment into my research. My work using virtual reality allows me to design and experiment with environments that encourage health. To Orem, the environment is a powerful tool that, if properly arranged, can support the actions that an individual needs to take in order to live in as healthful a manner as possible.

One of the biggest shifts during this time has been in our relationship with the environment around us, specifically, public spaces, buildings and offices, and other sites of social interaction.

Some of us who can continue working are unable to go to our usual place of work, thus the environment of work merges with the environment of everyday living. This requires acknowledgment and adaption, such as setting aside space in your home that is just for work. Another adjustment involves re-creating, through phone calls, web chats, and other virtual means, the social environment of work. Environments for physical activity and relaxation have been affected, too. No more going to the gym or meeting friends for softball — we’re finding different ways to move our bodies without getting too close to others!

This new environment of living and working alters more than the ways we work and play. It can change family dynamics, induce a sense of comfort or isolation, and scramble the visual cues that keep us on track throughout the day.

Perhaps, like me, you’ve set up a workspace that makes room for meaningful objects, such as a picture of a loved one or a favorite pen. Maybe you’ve transitioned your work to home with a computer, calendar, or whiteboard that keeps you engaged and on task. Certainly, so many of us have had to learn new meanings of the environments we inhabit.

I believe that we will return to working in our workplaces — but we will be shaped and transformed by this period of our lives.

Look around your environment now. What aspects of this place and space will you bring to the next phase of your work? How will you be inspired by the strength and creativity you’re currently drawing on while working in this new environment? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

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