Leading Through Pandemic Fatigue
January 18, 2021 | BY Simcha Felder
During the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, many business leaders and senior executives reported a sudden rush of energy and a profound sense of teamwork, which carried them through those opening days. Freed from their normal daily routines and energized by adrenaline, many business leaders found this to be an incredibly productive time where priorities became clear, decisions were made faster, and most employees stepped up to work in hectic, but harmonious, ways.
Managing through a crisis can feel very meaningful and energizing. But now, many months later, we are experiencing the second wave of COVID-19, and gone are those adrenaline-filled days of the early pandemic. Instead, that intensity has been replaced by “pandemic fatigue.” According to Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg in an article in the Harvard Business Review, many leaders and managers have reported experiencing a loss of agency, determination and energy. Stress incidents are on the rise and people’s emotional reactions are becoming more polarized. And this is even before we consider the recent events in our nation’s capital.
Pandemic fatigue is a natural response to this long, drawn-out crisis. What was originally a sprint has turned into a marathon, and as any runner will tell you, they require two very different skill sets. Dealing with stressful circumstances over a long period of time requires different coping strategies than the short-term fight or flight response we experienced in March and April. Just as a marathon runner needs to build up their endurance and stamina, business leaders need to develop the psychological stamina necessary to lead through the last mile.
Even as the vaccine appears as light at the end of the tunnel, how can you navigate your organization through the home stretch and come out successfully on the other side? There are a few key steps you can consider as you look to answer this question.
First, consider bounded optimism. While it is important that leaders display optimism and hope, it is just as important that it be grounded in reality. As the vaccine is currently being administered, this concept is more important than ever. Bounded optimism cautions against thinking a vaccine will return life to normal in only a short period of time. It will take months for enough people to be vaccinated and even then, we will still need time to process what has happened to our lives during the pandemic. One of a leader’s critical roles is to not only inspire hope, but also to temper that hope with a realistic expectation that resonates with his/her employees. This approach helps maintain a leader’s integrity, while encouraging positivity in the workplace.
Secondly, it is important to remember compassion. Your employees likely need more warmth and comfort than they might have prior to the pandemic. Leaders need to be serious about the mental health of their employees and commit to intervening when necessary. Organizations should consider a more holistic and inclusive form of listening than they are typically accustomed to. One way to create a space for employees to share how they are really doing, is for leaders to voice their own feelings of discomfort, which can send the powerful message that, “it’s OK to not be OK.”
Finally, although the moment calls for compassion, it also calls for a little more edge and collective defiance against the cruelty of the virus. You want your employees to think that “enough is enough!” and rise to fight the fatigue. Employees are tired of hearing that “we will get through this.” It’s time to think about raising the bar and challenging your employees. By adding a little edge, you can help restore some of your organization’s energy. Another way to get the energy flowing is by never accepting that meetings and interactions should become stale or boring. For example, according to Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg, the LEGO Group has a goal to “Energize Everyone, Every Day” as a central leadership principle of their organization. Energy is not a given; it must be generated internally. Always look for ways to shake things up so that meetings and daily work do not become tiring and repetitive.
Cultivating the necessary resilience to propel your team through the end of the pandemic requires a different kind of leadership and unique appeal to your employees. Compassion is more critical than ever, but a little edge and energy can go a long way. Remember that you are not alone, and that the resiliency needed to help you and your organization fight through pandemic fatigue, is within you.