Organisational long covid: diagnosis and treatment


"European nations are reporting increasing levels of pandemic fatigue in their populations [1]. The number of those who rate their mental health as ‘very poor’ is more than three times higher than before the crisis, and mental-health issues are still likely to rise [2]." McKinsey


Talking to many of our clients we have noticed an increasing sense of weariness. They find themselves wondering why they don’t quite seem to have the same enthusiasm for the job and report a lack of energy for embracing new opportunities and tackling important issues.

Leaders who are used to driving for results and reaching for stretch targets are often unwilling to admit to themselves that all is not well. Is this the case for you?


Being unable to control our own futures is exhausting and can make us feel insecure and weary. For people in senior positions, this has historically been less of an issue because the higher up you are in an organisation, the more control you have. However, the scale of disruption means that even senior leaders are finding it tough and the more senior they are, the harder it is to admit to these emotions because there is a belief that teams look to them for leadership and guidance or instant solutions. For courageous leaders however, there is an opportunity to lead by example in recognising the impact of ‘organisational long covid’ and championing ways to address this.


Symptoms

Entering the third year since the arrival of Covid, organisations are getting used to living with the virus, but this seemingly permanent sense of fatigue is demonstrated by parallels between medical long Covid following viral infection and organisational symptoms. These can include feeling tired all the time, insomnia, poor mental health and loss of energy amongst teams.


1.3 million people in the UK are suffering from medical long Covid [3] but there are limited insights into the physiological effects, whereas with organisational long covid, it is easier to recognise the signs and understand them to help address the real, long term impact of the uncertainty and disruption to working patterns.


"I couldn’t understand why I felt so emotional and exhausted and was hearing the same from the rest of my team – we felt completely overwhelmed, not just at work but also at home and didn’t know why or what to do about it."

The cause

Having acknowledged the problem we need to be clear about the cause; organisational long covid affects people at every level, so saps the energy of managers and leaders too, with recalibration forced on us all to adapt to the new circumstances we find ourselves in. We are never going to get back to what was normal life before March 2020 and we must accept that a lack of control is part of the world we inhabit right now, especially with much less autonomy, such as within Ukraine, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.


We must adapt and adopt new modes of leadership which look for collaboration, engagement and inclusivity and champion them; working together will strengthen a sense of calm and purpose in a changing world, and there are ways of understanding why our mental health is being compromised and also why our bodies are reacting by showing physical responses to this new environment.


Treatment

One positive arising from the pandemic has been that mental health and wellbeing are now higher up the corporate agenda. It is becoming more acceptable for people to admit to feeling unwell, or struggling to cope, or just frustrated at the lack of clear direction from policy makers. Focusing on holistic wellbeing, caring for the whole person from physical, mental, social and spiritual needs, can encourage a sense of belonging and caring for each other which can also result in better performance and ultimately improved operational success. McKinsey reports that ‘organizations that invest in the well-being and energy of their people see four times higher profit [4], and more than 20 percent gains in productivity and innovation' [5].


Investing in regular check-ins with direct reports without any business agenda, beyond understanding how they are on both a business and personal level, can help spot when someone needs support, gives them an opportunity to talk and strengthens a sense of connection. Listening with compassion, understanding and empathy requires conscious effort and preparation. Doing this helps avoid the erosion of trust, creates stronger teams and unleashes their potential to adapt and grow in today’s rapidly developing environments.


"I felt really listened to, as if my contribution mattered and my personal situation was important; talking to my Manager helped me get things in perspective and we introduced some small changes to my working pattern so I could continue to deliver against our goals, whilst recognising my symptoms were real and valid."

Long term prognosis

If we accept that there is a ‘long covid’ impact on our organisations, addressing the effects of the pandemic in a visible and practical way can create a real opportunity to rethink the way we work and build a new and more positive relationship with our people.


For some executives, the most difficult post pandemic lesson may be learning a different leadership style. Trained in traditional top-down management, these leaders are 'in the last gasp of that form of control,' says McKinsey’s Bill Schaninger in his podcast [6]. Schaninger also explains that ‘adopting an egalitarian, connected, and empathic approach to managing people; making the workplace less transactional; and creating tailored, multifaceted employee experiences’ will lead to a future which can once again seem brighter, more hopeful and focused on learning and collaboration.


Strong leaders with a calm and positive outlook can create a sense of stability and optimism in the face of rapid change and uncertainty. In this environment connecting with our purpose and playing to our strengths helps leaders and teams create renewed levels of energy and collaborative agility, learn to adapt, accept change and embrace personal growth.


At a time when many organisations are going through the ‘great resignation’, embracing flexible working opportunities and allowing people to experience greater autonomy puts wellbeing and talent right at the heart of the organisation so that individuals and teams feel excited to be part of the business, resilient and ready for whatever the future holds.


Photo: Bali Demiri (via Pexels)


[1] Pandemic fatigue – reinvigorating the public to prevent COVID-19 - World Health Organization Europe, November 2020

[2] Overcoming Pandemic Fatigue: How to Re-energize Organisations for the long run - McKinsey, November 2020

[3] Prevalence of ongoing symptoms following coronavirus (COVID-19) infection in the UK - Office of National Statistics, March 2022

[4] Employee experience: How to build an ex-centric organization - Hannah Olvera Doman and Elliott Nelson, Kennedy Fitch, April 2020

[5] The key to a more resilient organization is more resilient teams - Alexi Robichaux, TecHR, October 2020

[6] From the great attrition to the great adaptation (podcast & transcript) - Aaron De Smet & Bill Schaninger, November 2021