Working through pandemic fatigue

Last updated on 
January 11, 2021

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There’s no denying 2020 has been an unusually tough year. We’ve endured widespread social unrest, an unstable job market, global economic crisis and, of course, a long-lasting global pandemic. It’s fair to say we’re all tired of COVID-19; for most people, the novelty of working from home soon wore off, and stress and burnout soared as people attempted to juggle their personal and professional duties.

While hope has arrived in the form of a vaccine, that doesn’t change the fact there’s still no definitive end in sight, and with many people feeling anxious, low or exhausted, it’s more important than ever for companies to work through pandemic fatigue. As we approach the start of a new year, let’s look at how businesses can help re-energize the workplace.

Moving past the pandemic limbo

While 2021 will likely be another tough year, there is a silver living. In the struggle to adapt to the pandemic, most businesses have had to make huge changes to the ways they work and function. Many companies now offer flexible remote working on a permanent basis, while others have implemented innovative new tech, established remote-first policies, and – crucially – moved towards a more human-centric way of working. By building upon these accomplishments and experimenting with different approaches, businesses should be able to help their teams work though COVID-19 in the new year and beyond. So what areas should businesses focus on?

1. Acting with optimism

During a time when many people are feeling depressed and despondent, it can be tempting to amp up the positivity. But companies will need to tread the line between realistic hope and blind optimism. At the beginning of the pandemic, many of us believed we’d return to normality after just a few weeks or months. This sentiment was endorsed by many leaders, who focused on framing the situation as a brief “blip” we’d soon move past. While this may have been just a well-meaning short-term coping strategy, it made the subsequent length of the pandemic hit even harder.

To avoid this type of disillusionment, leaders must act with what McKinsey calls “bounded optimism”  – showing hope and positivity but ensuring it’s tempered by reality. It will be key to communicate the importance of acceptance, too. The fact is, we might not “get back to normal” by next spring. We may never get back to normal – but that doesn’t mean our new normality can’t be better than before. So, rather than focusing on what’s been lost, companies should encourage their employees to focus on what might be gained. The reality is that nobody knows what’s around the corner, and the idea of possibility and new beginnings can spark powerful motivation and energy.

2. Adapting, enduring and evolving

Back in 2011, Harvard Business Review wrote that a company’s ability to adapt didn’t just offer it a “new competitive advantage”; it was its primary predictor of success. Nearly a decade on, this projection remains extremely accurate. This year, the importance of being able to absorb new information, overcome struggles, adapt and develop has been critical to survival. During such uncertainty, the only thing we can be sure about is that upheaval and change will come again. We may not be able to control it, but we can control how we react to it – and promoting adaptability will be another way companies are able to help their employees feel empowered and inspired.

A new McKinsey survey found that two of the most crucial factors in aiding recovery from the pandemic were inspiring leadership and adaptability. By emphasizing the importance of adaptability, companies can create a culture of learning. The ability to adapt isn’t something you’re born with. Like most things, it can be improved with practice, and employee upskilling is one of the best ways to do this. By investing in employee development, companies aren’t only providing employees with a valuable confidence and motivation boost; they’re also contributing towards loyalty and proving a sense of stability and momentum during a period of stagnant uncertainty.

3. Prioritizing employee wellbeing and connection

It’s impossible to downplay the effect the pandemic has had on our collective mental health. The number of people who rate their mental health as “very poor” is over three times higher than before COVID-19 hit, and 75% of US employees state they’re feeling exhausted or burnt out. Feelings of isolation, disillusionment and grief for what’s been lost are rampant – and as a result, addressing employee wellbeing and mental health has never been so relevant. If companies want their employees to move past COVID fatigue and find new energy, they’ll need to prioritize their financial, physical and mental wellbeing.

We can feel cautiously optimistic that this will materialize. The tumultuous events of 2020 mean that many companies are going out of their way to show they recognize the individuality and humanity of their employees. Many are offering numerous mental health benefits like telemedicine screenings, employee assistance programs and stress reduction programs. Many leaders are also encouraging their employees to establish clear boundaries between their work and home lives, offering remote stipends, investing in wellbeing tech and placing new importance on social schemes and opportunities that help employees feel visible and connected.

By proving they care for their employees, companies aren’t only displaying empathy – they’re building trust. Both of these go a long way in sparking positivity and motivation, helping employees work through their pandemic fatigue and come out the other side stronger.

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