Posted 13 Oct 2021
Is Your Business In A “Covid Coma?” What To Do About Workforce Exhaustion And Overwhelm
Across the world employers are facing the same challenges right now – widespread fatigue is currently the norm, not the exception. In the early days of the pandemic, there was camaraderie, plans for keeping everyone going, check in buddies etc. Then there was a brief reprieve before a more serious wave of mental health distress arrived, particularly for those with difficult home and personal situations. Although we can reliably state that health care workers and front line service providers have borne the brunt of this pandemic, all industries have been affected by staff absences and illnesses and many of us now are understaffed and worn out. The frays around the edges are visible when we use technology that doesn’t quite work and might delete our data, where we are stuck in endless customer service loops, where our goods are out of stock and a simple job takes twice as long as expected. Everyone is depleted.
So What Can We Do?
Whenever I am totally stuck I look for examples of where people have overcome similar issues. We keep hearing the word “unprecedented” but actually history is littered with pandemics, dramatic social change and catastrophic natural disasters. No, we don’t know where this will end but neither did our ancestors. For example, any worthy Twentieth Century history buff will tell you the razor thin knife edge of opportunistic isolated events that prevented dictators from developing the first Atomic Bomb. Nothing to date was a foregone conclusion either. So we do need to think about how we galvanize, keep on keeping on and get both our individual and our civic jobs done. During the Second World War a UK law was passed against “spreading alarm and despondency.” What? Yes, you weren’t allowed to speak negatively about the government’s chances, or you could be arrested. Adds a new dimension the nostalgic meme “keep calm and carry on” doesn’t it? While policing thoughts and emotional repression is clearly an Orwellian nightmare, I’m starting to wonder what we could do instead to manage our emotions as we seek to rebound but can’t quite muster the enthusiasm.
What IS unprecedented in the Twenty-First Century, and is definitely affecting our emotions, is the continual flow of noise. Our exhaustion has combined with a growing sense of what I’m calling “civic helplessness”. It’s hard to feel excited about a project or a new strategy at work when we are watching such major events unfold across the world every day, at all hours of the day, without a break. Your staff will have different things they feel desolate about – oppression of women in Afghanistan or Texas, climate catastrophes, retrenchment of civil liberties in Hong Kong or health matters – but there’s a lot to be rightly concerned about. Nevertheless, being overwhelmed into inaction is not helpful. Our phones have neuro-hacked our biology to keep us addicted to the news cycle, particularly bad news, and we need to talk about how we’ve fallen deeper into the hole whilst in quarantines and lock downs. Quite apart from long covid, these habits are sucking the life force out of all of us, and it is affecting our work. We have become detached, unable to live in the present and struggling to concentrate on the duties at hand. It’s dissonant to be so absent in our lives and so strongly connected to the world at large at the same time.
Before smart phones, we used to watch the news once or twice a day and then get on with our business. I suggest starting conversations at work about limiting phone use. Normalize discussion about whether people are reading the news in bed or when they wake in the night, perhaps it is during the day whilst in zoom meetings. As Professor Almuth McDowall has written before the pandemic added to our woes, “Always On culture” is a mental health drain. It is not healthy to be getting constant alerts and pings of existential dread, it’s no wonder that we can’t concentrate and are forgetting all our admin. We need some boundaries around what we’re feeding our mental space and I think work is a great place to talk about that for some solidarity and encouragement. Choose your news outlets wisely and have dedicated slots for checking in, not all day everyday. Engagement is great, but not to the point of numbing and disillusionment.
Social media is no longer sociable
Those who aren’t obsessed by the news might be part of discussions and forums online that have degenerated in recent months in terms of tone and collegiality. I was shocked when I looked at 2019 and how different my social media interactions were. Many of the hashtags I follow and spaces I occupy have moved on from making friends to forming common enemies and taking them down. We’ve got no more energy for an alternative view, you are either with us or against us, there’s no in between. Even the professional pages are getting a bit grumpy! I’m really trying to catch myself when I start down those rabbit holes now and I encourage you to do the same. Hyper-connectedness to our online tribes is no longer feeding our energy and wellbeing, it is draining us. I’ve set myself a mission to train my algorithms to notice positive stories and examples of sharing learning, by managing what I “like.” Maybe we can teach Social Media to select better posts for our feeds if we put out what we want to get back? We can’t ignore the real problems that we face as a society but we do need to look for the routes out.
Make sure you’re not inadvertently encouraging hyper-connectedness with unhealthy cultures around emailing at weekends and demanding responses out of hours. Now is definitely the time to knock that on the head and remember whatever you have written in your policies, what you personally do will set the tone. So change your habits if needs be and make sure everyone has a “send later” function. It’s too easy to slide from an “innocent” Whats App chat or Twitter binge to an out of hours email check if you aren’t really clear about email etiquette. And with the doom and ire, the internet will prime our mood meaning that adjacent emailing is also less likely to be motivational and courteous. It’s not helping.
As for the remote working / return to the office dynamic, let people do what works best for them. Your disabled and carer employees have felt included for the first time during this pandemic. Pulling them back too often or prematurely is not going to have the result you want. For others, it might actually be the best thing that happened. Research has shown that ADHDers, like me and around 5% of the population, have found remote working in the pandemic absolutely devastating for our productivity. It has exacerbated our difficulties in managing time, our cognitive distractedness and removes the ability to do what we do best. Make your ADHDers happy and we will inject the positivity back into the office culture!
Switch Off And Move
I have learned over the years that I can take care of my body in order to take care of my mind. If I can’t see my way through the psycho-social problems that might be gnawing at me, I can still get up in the morning and run/walk/cycle/yoga. If you can’t exercise for health reasons, what about a massage? Anything to get you back in your body and out of that busy brain. How much I physically move is one thing, that is within my control, that I know makes a difference to my state of mind. If I want to wake up and start being present again, a few weeks of hauling myself to some physical exercise can be the spark that gets me going again. Talk to your staff about health as well as mental health, it’s time to stop dwelling and start moving and again, you can facilitate this. Arrange outdoor meetings, role model taking time for lunchtime runs or yoga, be visible in what you do for your own self-care and others will join in when they see it making a difference.
I’ve even been some for some walks without my phone lately! And yes, I know that means my step counter will underestimate my averages and yes, I confess that seriously has stopped me from unplugging before! But it’s time to unhack our brains from that dopamine hit and get healthy again.
Thank you to the amazing artist Jennie Meadows for coining the phrase “Covid Coma”