Making It Work: An executive assistant on adapting to change—and embracing professional help for her mental health

The pandemic has disproportionately affected women. In our Women in the Workplace research last year, 1 in 4 of them said they were considering taking a step back in their careers or leaving the workforce entirely. A year after WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, we began talking to several McKinsey women about how they’ve made it work—the surprising challenges, unexpected joys, and how the pandemic has shaped their outlook on life and work. Here, Nadia Dua, an executive assistant based in Manila, talks about transitioning to remote work, talking to a mental health professional for the first time, and learning to take care of herself during unprecedented times.

On the moment the pandemic felt real:

I remember it clearly; it was March 15, 2020. I was already logged off from work, and we were having a group chat with my team of executive assistants in Manila. Then we learned a person in the building of our office had tested positive, so everyone was expected to work from home the next day. Luckily our leaders were thinking ahead so we already had our laptops with us to be able to work remotely. When I learned of the person testing positive, I thought the situation might get worse—and sure enough, it did.

On navigating the pivot to remote work:

It was challenging because McKinsey executive assistants typically work in the office. And personally, I don’t like working from home because I like the physical divide between work and life. Plus, I live in a small condo with my partner and our dog, and there were new protocols in our building that limited movement. That included only allowing pets to go out once a day. That wasn’t enough, so my partner would sometimes take our dog with her when she was grocery shopping, just so she could go out. The first month was okay, but after that, life started feeling very “bed to table” for me. We didn’t really have the space for the two of us to have different rooms for work and living.

On the things that helped her get through the challenging times:

I talked to a mental health professional for the first time during the pandemic, thanks to a benefit the firm offered. It may be much more normal in other communities or cultures, but in the Philippines, speaking to a psychiatrist or therapist can sometimes carry a heavy stigma. I found the sessions to be so helpful in sorting through what was going on in my head. It was wonderful to have someone help me ask better questions—and to give me support that this uncertainty was something I could endure. The most tactical advice that I got was breathing techniques, which helped me feel grounded, particularly in those moments where everything felt too overwhelming.

On how the pandemic has changed her views on work and life:

One of my favorite practical things the firm did to support us was offering reimbursement for office equipment we needed at home. I got an ergonomic chair, which was good because most of our chairs at home were not conducive for sitting for long hours in a day. Last week I was telling a friend who is looking for a job to ask potential interviewers what their company did to care for their people during the pandemic. I think that's going to show them if they’re heading to a good company.

I’ve also adapted to the “bed to table” lifestyle and established a better routine. I commit to personal time blocks throughout the day to break up my work routine, like walking my dog at 4:30 p.m. every afternoon before finishing up emails. By 6:30 p.m., it’s family rosary time, and I’m usually winding down for the night by 9 p.m.

Last year taught me to just have a lot more conversations—and to appreciate the different ways people think about things.

Executive Assistant Nadia Dua

More broadly, I have a new appreciation for people’s different mindsets. When the pandemic hit I immediately thought that everyone was aware that the situation would get worse before it could get better. For some reason I thought everyone would have the same mindset. Of course I was wrong. I came across a number of Filipinos who thought that COVID-19 was a scam while browsing the Department of Health’s Facebook page.

Over the last year I've developed this genuine curiosity about people's thought processes, especially when they’re different from mine. Like, how did you arrive at this belief? What experiences led you to believe this? Last year taught me to just have a lot more conversations—and to appreciate the different ways people think about things.

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