We are in a state of limbo with the pandemic: Not quite in the thick intensity of the first waves, but we are not yet at the end of it either.
We are in a state of uncertainty that permeates our lives, our choices, and our ability to imagine and plan for our futures – including in our professional lives.
Our August trends focus on the human side, the emotional impact of the pandemic on people and the working world, and what people leaders can do to better prepare their organisations for this:
We are still figuring out how to collectively mourn our losses—be it the 6.3 million lives lost, our previously normal workday routines lost, our former ways of social interaction lost, our easy comfort in large groups lost… the list goes on. We continue to ‘figure it out’ when there hasn’t been a single instigating event that occurred and ended, but instead a protracted and still ongoing series of waves.
The impact of this ongoing collective mourning on our working lives is significant. There is of course the impact of bereavement and loss on engagement and retention. But more importantly, there is the human experience that sits alongside the numbers: the stress and burnout increasingly being felt by people leaders who have had to work longer and harder to help stabilise their teams. On the other side, Gen Z report the least positive life outlook, lower levels of emotional wellbeing and higher rates of depression than older generations.
Hope is powerful in helping us in focusing on the future. Treat hope as a mindset (without stepping over into toxic positivity) and upskill your teams, people leaders and especially your young people in developing it. At a base level, this means fostering hope in your people within your organisation. A more sophisticated approach is to also see hope as a skillset or mindset that can be nurtured and strengthened, like a muscle.
After over two years of resilience emerging as the key skill in work and in life, we’re seeing against it, especially from Millennials and Gen Z. Why?
First, the pandemic required a lot of affective labour from people and people leaders.
‘Affective labour’ is the intense and invisible work that goes into producing and managing our emotions in order to meet or serve the needs of others. A manager appearing calm or positive when dealing with line reports; a leader projecting confidence and stability when presenting to her team, and so on. While a normal part of the working day, especially for people leaders, the pandemic heighted the need for affective labour immensely.
Now, more than two years in, there’s a general sense of exhaustion with the requirements of maintaining a sense of stability at work when the world feels very different and unpredictable.
Second, in tandem, we’re seeing a shift towards systemic accountability when it comes to resilience. Put simply, why should an individual be accountable for building resilience, when the system isn’t resilient enough to ensure peoples’ wellbeing? The challenge is few systems—or few workplaces and companies—have the levels of resilience needed to thrive through the pandemic. The focus for many organisations has been survival.
There’s been a surge in the value, impact, and importance of kindness in the workplace, and notably from leaders. Leading with kindness, imbuing a culture of kindness, practicing everyday kindness at work. These seemingly small acts can have outsized impact on people’s engagement, can reduce burnout, and build a sense of feeling valued and part of a community—all things important as we wrestle with the impact of COVID on mental health.
It’s important to note this isn’t about seeing kindness as a cure-all, but using it as the bedrock and the north star for how we engage with one another, treat one another, and consider one another through the course of our working days.
Who is responsible for an individual’s wellbeing? Historically, people might have sought care from their communities, religious institutions—church, mosque, synagogue, etc—or their families. In more modern history, from the state through public health and care provisions. More recently still, they might have sought it through therapy or self-help books themselves. With the pandemic, employers have increasingly stepped into this role to care for their people.
Companies are increasingly investing in wellbeing initiatives for their people—from meditation apps, exercise equipment subsidies, even an entire week off work for wellness. A positive impact of this shifting role of the employer is that mental health is talked about much more openly; on the flipside, some organisations have overstepped into intrusiveness on their people’s lives and choices, and we’re seeing the emergence of the term the ‘nanny employer’. So, we face the goldilocks challenge: how much employer involvement in wellbeing is too much? How much is not enough? How much is just right?
Embrace the changing role your organisation might be playing in your people’s lives.
We’re living through a once-in-a-century global pandemic, and worlds have been turned upside down. It makes sense that people are looking for different, or more, from their workplaces. It’s a ripe moment to be at the leading edge of this change, but when it comes to the new and unknown, it’s important to do it mindfully. What do your people need? How can this differ by time in the workforce, career-stage, role, etc.? Sometimes, the best thing to do is ask.