Surviving and Thriving in Uncertain Times

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Even during the best of times, anti-money laundering (AML) professionals are under great stress and strain from constantly changing regulatory and tactical environments. As criminals rapidly change tactics and technology inevitably lags, the AML profession must constantly improvise, adjust and overcome a plethora of obstacles. Unfortunately, the obstacles were not in short supply in 2020 as the globe was collectively hit by a pandemic that still rages. As a result, most AML professionals were sent home to work remotely. Varying degrees of connectivity issues plagued the industry and operating models literally changed overnight.

In addition to regular work deliverables, large percentages of AML professions remain sheltered at home while employees must also help their children with attending school remotely. Seeing families struggle compounds a person’s stress and worrying for elderly parents creates yet another anxiety.

Even though COVID-19 vaccines are slowly becoming available, the heavy lifting is far from over. There are uncertain times ahead in the industry and the notion of an eventual return to work amidst a population that is not entirely vaccinated will likely cause more stress and anxiety. Thus, better mental health should be prioritized.

40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse during late June 2020

With this in mind, the public’s collective mental health issues remain on the rise with increased reports of depression, anxiety, irritability and unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as alcohol consumption. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse during late June 2020.1 In addition, many continue to deal with feelings of guilt, grief and an overall sense of loss related to the inability to engage in previous activities or hobbies.

During these difficult times, many say they feel “scattered” and have difficulty focusing. This is not surprising, as one’s “fight or flight” response is more activated as a result of fear of contracting COVID-19, spreading the virus to loved ones and constant worries about how to avoid contamination. Stressful feelings about finances and employment have also been widely experienced.

As the different stages of the pandemic unfold, including quarantine and lockdown, a new sense of normal has to be established each time with a new routine, structure and activities. Resiliency has certainly been tested; many have discovered an inner strength and flexibility they previously did not know they had.

People’s sense of self, personal roles and identity have also been put to the test. At times, it may feel as if one’s sense of self has changed entirely as a result of the pandemic. It is through adversity, upsetting life events and stressors that many can find their inner strength. This new chapter provides opportunities to develop a healthy view of the self, find meaning and appreciation for life, practice gratitude, work on healthy relationships and set goals. It is about working toward building personal and psychological growth.2

The following practices are some ways to build strength and resilience for these uncertain times:

  • Identify thoughts and emotions and normalize your reactions: The silver lining of COVID-19 being a global issue is that no one is going through this experience alone. Realizing that adverse reactions to these stressful times are normal can help one feel less helpless and increase an overall feeling of control over the chaos. It also helps to prevent negative emotions or thoughts from being exacerbated. For instance, worries can quickly turn into rapidly spiraling emotions. Identifying and building awareness of one’s emotions helps better regulate them.
  • Put energy and time into what can be controlled: Identify any current problems and current worries (distinguish them from potential worries), then work on a to-do list and create active graduated goals to problem solve.
  • Seek social support and reach out: It is important to seek support for various needs, such as information gathering, advice, sympathy, empathy and/or professional help. An invaluable asset throughout this crisis is having a quality support network, as well as building on resources and reaching out. Being able to optimize one’s resources and strengths helps further resilience.
  • Set daily time for yourself: It can occur at different intervals throughout the day or at a certain set time. Setting time for yourself to recharge will help with rejuvenating and finding your center, and as a result, will help you feel more engaged and productive.
  • Practice self-compassion by identifying thoughts and emotions and putting them into perspective: Reframing thoughts and emotions and taking a more balanced approach can be very powerful. Identify your positives and praise yourself daily. View your experience as part of the larger human experience and the need to accept mistakes and imperfections.
  • Plan some type of exercise into the self-care routine: From stretching exercises, walking outside and other cardio, to engaging in virtual exercise groups, there are many ways to feel more active. Exercising in a natural environment has been found to be beneficial. Adopting a balanced healthy diet and minimizing any foods that increase the risk for inflammation can also help one’s self-care, in addition to reducing unhealthy coping practices such as increased alcohol or nicotine consumption.

It is easy to let the mind wander to the future when feeling anxious or travel to the past when feeling depressed. Thus, it becomes quite easy to lose track of the present. Practice grounding by using the five senses throughout the day to feel the moment and the present time. Focus on the meaning and purpose of each task and appreciate the hard work and achievement, regardless of the outcome. It is rare for one to have full control over the outcome.

What has been reassuring throughout this pandemic has been the support from larger institutions. Many are fortunate to have layers of support from their employee care teams. However, sometimes that support can be overwhelming in terms of the amount of information available. All employees should take the time to read their institution’s COVID-19 employee care pages and see what applies best.

Looking forward, the AML industry faces an uncertain 2021. Teams within this field are more critical than ever as benefits fraud and other criminal activities fall into the collective scope on top of the usual case supply. Not only are AML professionals facing this pandemic in their respective countries, but they are also at the forefront of combating global crimes associated with this outbreak. Keeping perspective and taking a breath is a great start.

Being able to optimize one’s resources and strengths helps further resilience

As ACAMS adjusts to this new normal with virtual or distanced programming and robust social media engagement, it is exciting to see their receptiveness to an article not about AML, but about helping the amazing people who work in AML.

Lastly, it is imperative to seek professional help when experiencing a depressed mood more days than not; sadness or excessive anxiety that is increasingly difficult to cope with; reduced interest in activities and low motivation; difficulty with sleep, appetite and/or concentration; inability to engage in daily activities or responsibilities; feeling increasingly withdrawn; or other symptoms that cause concern. 

Dr. Katy Kamkar, Ph.D., C. Psych., clinical psychologist, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH); assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto

Cameron Field, BA, MSc, senior manager, BMO Financial Group

  1. “Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 14, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm
  2. This information is anecdotal through counseling and therapy efforts of psychologists.

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