What is the Psychological Impact of Covid-19 on Your Workforce?
What is the Psychological Impact of Covid-19 on Your Workforce?
It’s now over a year ago that I drove past this impressive oak tree at speed en route to catch the train to London to see Executive Coaching clients. As I walked through the concourse at Paddington Station there was the usual hussle and bussle, but you could almost smell the fear; commuters were attempting to avoid each other and rushing more than normal. I tried to buy another hand sanitizer at the chemists, but was told that you had to queue before they opened to be sure of securing a precious bottle. The cab driver said he was very scared of the virus and some of the big US firms in the City were already sending their staff home to work remotely. My clients and I discussed the horrific images of the hospitals in Northern Italy, but unbelievably it was to be another month before the UK went in to the first lockdown.
Covid-19 had changed the future of work forever; one of my clients, Twitter, announced early on that their teams could work remotely from anywhere; other Tech companies have followed suit. So began the roller coaster ride along the Change Curve for many organizations and their workforces: at first many team members loved their new-found freedom and the slower pace of life. After 3 years of hurtling past the sturdy oak tree on the way to meetings, promising myself I’d walk through the lanes slowly one day, I’m very grateful to be enjoying many wonderful walks along the lanes in-between Coaching via video calls. However, some office workers have missed their commute and their colleagues; a year on, the original novelty of home working has definitely worn off for many. Added to the widely reported lockdown and screen fatigue, many of us have now lost loved ones to coronavirus or to terminal illnesses which were left unchecked. Many have been hospitalised or are suffering from Long Covid. Some of us haven’t been able to see loved ones for a year due to them shielding or because of travel restrictions.
With the vaccination roll-out continuing at pace and depending on the effect of schools reopening and the impact of the new variants, some restrictions may soon start to be lifted. So, organizations are starting to plan again for another – perhaps this time permanent – return to the office. The task is challenging, not only for the facilities departments to create a Covid-safe environment, but also for leaders and HR to navigate their way through the complex psychological impact that the pandemic has had on their workers.
Many team members will not be the same as they were this time last year: some are struggling to cope with bereavement, many are feeling very anxious – not only about Covid, but also about the security of their job. As so many have learned to truly appreciate their health and family, some of the older generation have seen that life is too short to work constantly and have decided they want to hang up their briefcase, keen to be offered redundancy or early retirement. Conversely, parents with teenage children have realised their offspring have become almost self-sufficient in their new online worlds, so they’re looking for more responsibility at work. Many Millennials are also hoping for much more flexible and remote working in order to be able to enjoy more of a work/life balance. Reportedly only 40% of commuters want to return to London offices, with many of them saving thousands in season tickets and enjoying the local facilities in their commuter towns, as well as the ability to put the washing machine on in-between Zoom calls whilst they’re working in their ‘home office!’ For many employers it’s an uncomfortable reality that they may have a battle to entice some of their workers back to their sites.
However, aside from those employees who have been enjoying a more relaxed way of life, there are thousands, not only in the NHS and public sector, who have been working excessive hours without a break for a year. They continue to operate on adrenalin. When life does start to return to some form of ‘new normal,’ a whole section of management and staff are very likely to experience some level of stress, burnout, sense of loss and even PTSD. CEOs have had to make a whole range of swift and tough calls over the past year, from closing offices permanently, to making large swathes of employees redundant. Sometimes, when they start to move from fire-fighting mode and have more time to be strategic, the reality of the situation starts to hit them. In fact, 20% of FTSE 100 CEOs have left their post in the past 12 months, some as a direct result of the stress caused by trying to manage uncertainty and pressure, whilst leading Change and dealing with the impact of Covid-19.
Even before the pandemic changed the world, there was already a mental health crisis in the UK. Covid has accentuated already existing issues and exacerbated the effects of key life events, such as divorce or relationship break up. For many workers, the thought of having to go back to the office is very daunting. For those who are shielding or suffering from Long-Covid, who have managed to work from home with a 2 minute commute from one room to another, the prospect of a long commute is frightening and exacerbating their anxiety levels. Workers returning from furlough are experiencing mixed emotions, from guilt at having been paid to do nothing, whilst their colleagues have been working additional hours, but also there is the added fear that they may end up being made redundant anyway. Their team members may be feeling resentful towards them too, which all adds to a challenging dynamic for the return to the office.
Many organizations have supported their staff well throughout the pandemic, offering help from OH, EAPs and Resilience Coaching, which has had a positive impact on engagement and reduced sickness absence. However, this is just the beginning. In years to come there will be books and theses published on the psychological impact of Covid on workers. Compassionate Leadership is one of the requirements to cope with the impact of Covid. The key now is for employers to take a proactive approach to ensuring that workers are well looked after, both to keep them physically safe, but also mentally well and to assist them in developing their Resilience skills.
When life and work do get back to some semblance of normality, don’t forget the words of the Welsh poet, W. H. Davies: 'What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.'
Stay safe, stay positive!