The Covid-19 pandemic has been affecting us globally for over a year now.
At the beginning of February 2020, in Europe, we started talking seriously about the spread of a virus unknown to the general public and the following month we began our first containment measures.
Since then, we have experienced hopes, disillusions, partial summer freedom, curfews, the arrival of the first vaccines but also the arrival of the first variants of the virus. After a year of difficulties and instability, we are all tired of the situation and yet the prospects of a close end are still very uncertain.
Different but equally important side effects
The seriousness of the situation required the implementation of extreme decisions with an unprecedented impact on people’s daily lives. This context of health constraints and the resulting economic and social crises have had a multitude of psychological and physical consequences.
During these 12 months, our emotional balance has been tested by disturbing emotions such as fear and anxiety related to immediate health risks or present and future economic uncertainties. Of course, not everyone has been affected by the pandemic in the same way, but nevertheless, no one has been spared of some of its negative effects.
Even when we have not been personally affected by the loss or the sickness of a loved one, forced behavioural changes have fuelled the suffering of being deprived of our usual lifestyle and daily social routines. This has created an increased sense of isolation and loneliness in some cases, boredom and compulsive compensation in others or even a sense of overburdening for those in restricted family spaces.
Today we feel tired of having been exposed for a year to mental and physical tensions which degrade our cognitive functions, our ability to manage our emotions, our relationships with others, our capacity to respond to challenging situations, and our very sense of meaning and commitment; in three words: our general well-being. However, research1Understanding the Stress Response: The Chronic Activation of this Survival Mechanism Impairs Health. (2020) Harvard Health Publishing + A. Mariotti, The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain–body communication. (2015) Future Science OA, vol. 1, no. 3. has shown that chronic activation of our response system to stressful situations produces negative effects on the body and brain, which is why it is important to take them into consideration and put in place actions capable of counteracting these effects.
What is "Pandemic Fatigue"?
As if the negative effects of the pandemic were not enough, the duration of the crisis also becomes an aggravating factor. The weight of the limits imposed on individuals creates, over time, a psychological weariness that tends to diminish acceptance of the situation and minimise involvement in the measures to be followed.
Today, all member states of the World Health Organisation (WHO)2Pandemic Fatigue: Reinvigorating the public to prevent COVID-19. Policy framework for supporting pandemic prevention and management. (2020) World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe. are observing signs in their populations of a condition defined as “Pandemic Fatigue”. The term “Fatigue” is used in its common sense as a state of exhaustion.
This is a real social and political problem as it leads to a decrease in the perceived threat of the virus and a demotivation of individuals to follow barrier behaviours, which directly reduces the effectiveness of the fight against the pandemic.
This fatigue also leads to a psychological state where the individual losses (freedom of action, social relations, economic, etc.) caused by the situation, begin to be perceived as more important than the risks and consequences of the virus itself.
How companies are affected?
As we know, the individual remains the same, whether in his or her personal or professional context. Today, with containment and remote working, this is even more evident, which is why companies and organisations are directly impacted by the side effects of Pandemic Fatigue.
First of all, the risk of seeing employees infected by the virus is higher if social distancing rules are not properly adhered to. If there is a presence in the workplace, the risk of infecting several people at the same time is even greater.
In any case, the aspect that has the greatest impact on organisations is the declining of the psychological state of their employees. This aspect needs to be taken into serious consideration because we know from neuroscience3A. J. Porcelli and M. R. Delgado, Stress and decision making: effects on valuation, learning, and risk-taking. (2017) Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, vol. 14. + B. S. McEwen and R. M. Sapolsky, Stress and cognitive function. (1995) Current Opinion in Neurobiology, vol. 5, no. 2. that psychological and emotional imbalance directly affects cognitive abilities, decision-making, and the quality of professional relationships.
How to act at HR level?
While the current situation is difficult, the good news is that there are several possible strategies to help teams and leaders regain perspective and increase their level of well-being on a daily basis.
Because of the multi-level impact of the Pandemic Fatigue, solutions must address not only the reorganization of working methods and processes, but also the emotional consequences of difficult circumstances.
We talk a lot about resilience in these times, but to evoke it as an amulet that would have the power to remove difficulties would be really misleading. Resilience is an innate ability of human beings to cope with unexpected events and to recover from the setbacks these events have created.
Nevertheless, the ability to recover from adversity differs from person to person, which is why it is important for companies and organisations to help their employees increase their resilience skill through specific training4I. T. Robertson, C. L. Cooper, M. Sarkar, and T. Curran, Resilience Training in the Workplace from 2003 to 2014: A Systematic Review. (2015) Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, vol. 88, no. 3.. This requires taking into account the brain mechanisms associated with resilience and mind training practices that promote a better balance between executive and emotional functions.
Two important elements of our resilience are related to the way we frame difficulties and to the way we analyse the situation, understanding which solutions or changes are possible and which aspects, on the contrary, are outside our capacity to intervene. Reframing5J. T. Buhle et al. Cognitive Reappraisal of Emotion: A Meta-Analysis of Human Neuroimaging Studies. (2014) Cerebral Cortex, vol. 24, no. 11. + A. S. Troy, F. H. Wilhelm, A. J. Shallcross, and I. B. Mauss, Seeing the Silver Lining: Cognitive Reappraisal Ability Moderates the Relationship Between Stress and Depressive Symptoms. (2010) Emotion, 10 (6). is supported by practices that promote a constructive cognitive reappraisal of the situation, while acceptance refers to the understanding of what Fred Luskin in his book Forgive for Good calls “inapplicable rules” which are situations over which we have no control. Acceptance means preventing the frustration of this type of situation from dragging us into a psychological blockage that affects, uselessly, our quality of life and our professional skills6A. J. Shallcross, A. S. Troy, M. Boland, and I. B. Mauss, Let It Be: Accepting Negative Emotional Experiences Predicts Decreased Negative Affect and Depressive Symptoms. (2010) Behaviour Research and Therapy, vol. 48, no. 9..
The ability to apply these two strategies – reframing and acceptance – requires the capacity to be able to observe one’s own mental activity, and to become familiar with the psychological patterns we have built up over time. Developing the ability to observe our mind and its processes requires training our mind in mental focus and awareness.
Moreover, when we are confronted with stressful or difficult situations, emotional competences become essential7M. M. Tugade, B. L. Fredrickson, and L. Feldman Barrett, Psychological Resilience and Positive Emotional Granularity: Examining the Benefits of Positive Emotions on Coping and Health. (2004) Journal of Personality, vol. 72, no. 6.. To develop them, we need an initiation to the world of emotions, to improve our ability to recognise them, to name them and to manage them in the most constructive way.
To build resilience, we also need to consider the importance of prosocial skills8J. Hu and R. Liden, Making a Difference in the Teamwork: Linking Team Prosocial Motivation to Team Processes and Effectiveness. (2015) Academy of Management Journal, vol. 58, no. 4. and how to re-establish broken social bonds, improve interpersonal communication and have the required tools to manage the increasing number of conflicts.
Being more resilient also means acting on the levers of what scientists call subjective well-being. We now know the mental and behavioural strategies that can improve physical and psychological well-being on a daily basis9S. Lyubomirsky, K. M. Sheldon et D. Schkade, Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change. (2005) Review of General Psychology, vol. 9. + J. E. A. Russell, Promoting Subjective Well-Being at Work. (2008) Journal of Career Assessment, vol. 16, no. 1..
Finally, resilience also rests on the ability to remain connected in our lives to the purpose10A. S. Heller et al. Sustained Striatal Activity Predicts Eudaimonic Well-Being and Cortisol Output. (2013) Psychol Sci, vol. 24, no. 11. and engagement needed to nurture constructive behaviour in our personal and professional activities.
To counter the risks associated with pandemic fatigue, companies need to put in place appropriate preventive measures and new ways of working, but above all they must equip their staff with the necessary mindset and skillset to help them rebalance and regain strength and commitment in the midst of current events.
We say that the worst thing in a crisis is to waste it. So yes, it is possible for companies to experience post-traumatic growth if they support their teams and leaders in strengthening what we at Mind of Joy Consulting call Strategic Human Skills.
Valentina Dolara & Laurent van Steenkiste
Illustration by Luana Lloyd