Global Culture and Engagement Practice Leader Kincentric
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How Covid-19 will impact employee wellbeing in the long term

The initial panic surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic may have passed, but this is giving way to a longer-term problem that will affect employee wellbeing.

21st Aug 2020
Global Culture and Engagement Practice Leader Kincentric
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business woman wearing suit and mask looking worried
iStock/Drazen Zigic

HR leaders can all agree that the way we work has changed during the Covid-19 crisis, and with that shift comes the risk of a new kind of burnout. Although the World Health Organization has announced that the threat of the virus is categorically under control, there is no necessity or appetite to return wholesale to our pre-Coronavirus norms.

Many companies have established that remote working can work, and that productivity can remain high in even the most inauspicious circumstances. Despite this, with a new operational agility comes a different set of risks to employee wellbeing. The new burnout is driven by fear of job losses; an inevitable blurring of work/life balance; isolation; workplace suitability and adequate and reliable technology – the latter is a side effect of which we have all fallen foul.

We are not living in a straightforward pre- and post-pandemic world, but a pre- and post-vaccine one. We already are in the ‘new normal’ and fear will inevitably rise on a par with the levels of uncertainty.

The looming major global recession and its imminent threat to employment across sectors can result in employees working extended hours to establish themselves as indispensable and secure their long-term future.

Deep fatigue and extreme stress, combined with wider societal anxieties around Covid-19 and the lack of a clear endpoint are likely to result in a reduction in employee wellbeing and engagement, and will pose a once-in a-generation challenge for business leaders.

This may sound at odds with companies widely reporting a largely smooth transition to remote working and productivity on a par with and – in some cases – exceeding the norm. A survey of 130,000 staff from more than 100 companies tells a different story, however.

A creeping fear

The results revealed high levels of positive employee experience between 13 April and 15 May, but these scores are artificially high and will crash within nine months. We must not take this initial positivity for granted, as it is likely that we’ll see employee engagement plunge to depths last seen in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the financial crash of 2008/9.

The Coronavirus interruption initially offered millions a change of routine and a novel chance to work from home for a few weeks. As workers begin to realise that this emergency will go on for many months more, and possibly even years, the enthusiasm will be eroded rapidly by the stresses and tensions it brings and many will suffer a crash.

We are not living in a straightforward pre- and post-pandemic world, but a pre- and post-vaccine one. We already are in the ‘new normal’ and fear will inevitably rise on a par with the levels of uncertainty.

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The work/life struggle

As it stands, workers have had a positive experience of wellbeing, connection and caring, senior leader response and virtual work support. The number one factor impacting this upbeat response is senior leadership care and concern. The issue lies in the likely difficulty in maintaining high levels of positive experience with stress inevitably set to rise as the situation continues without a clear path or timescale.

Those who are managing childcare at home – most likely those predominantly in the 35 – 44 age group – will experience the highest levels of stress and therefore are at most risk of burnout. Workers juggling middle management roles with significant responsibilities will also struggle, as they will lack the financial security that benefits those in senior executive management. The stress of family provision compounded by lack of long-term financial security is a significant trigger to burnout.

Added to these inescapable pressures, many are putting in longer hours to make themselves ‘indispensable’ in an attempt to secure their position. Many are also discovering that working with colleagues and clients via screens adds a greater strain and is much more tiring than face-to-face interactions.

The resulting deep fatigue compounds all the stresses of home working and childcare, as well as the profound health fears of returning to their workplace. This can manifest in workers feeling trapped and beleaguered in a way unseen before, making the new burnout a real prospect.

The need for clear and empathetic leadership

Companies should be praised for their successful and rapid transition into crisis mode, which has provided vital reassurance for their workforce. The impact of this initial reassurance is waning, however, with business leaders needing to look ahead and, while providing long-term clarity is a tall order, communicate the protocols that are in place to help businesses to react quickly, mitigating risk and benefitting from opportunities.

There will be no return to the ‘old normal’ and leaders do not have the answers to this long-term uncertainty, but in order to maintain the initial levels of positivity from employees, business leaders must continue to engage and communicate with empathy. Leadership development models must focus on care, human connection and resilience, otherwise the fallout of a stressed workforce, working under uncertain conditions with no end in sight, means burnout could become another epidemic of sorts, affecting both employers and society.

As well as an accelerated, proactive listening strategy to understand and proactively manage stress in this fluid situation, a productive digital experience will help the workforce cope with prolonged remote working, with provisions to ensure workforce interaction and ward off isolation. HR functions must also look to evolve by adopting a radical employee-focused approach to facilitating the employee experience.

Business leaders must be alive to the reality of a significant crash in workforce productivity and happiness, as stress levels and fear of the unknown rises. It has never been more important for leaders to be present among their staff and offer reassurance and transparency often, before doubt can multiply within their workforce.

Interested in this topic? Read Mental health awareness: why wellbeing is a business critical issue.

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