The refrain echoes constantly: “When things get back to normal … .” This phrase misleads us because, as sociologists understand well, there is little chance that Dec. of 2021 will closely resemble Dec. of 2019. The isolation, economic disruption, stress and uncertainty that 2020 brought has left virtually no one unaffected, and companies should enter 2021 cognizant that their employees have changed.
The question they must answer is: How have they changed, and what does that change mean for the way leaders should engage with them, structure work and support them? Companies that move swiftly to understand what their employees need — and that keep their fingers on the pulse of that sentiment — can gain a huge advantage. To do so, they need to gather the unseen, unspoken data that will enable them to optimize growth, loyalty and productivity while battling burnout, breakdowns and depression.
Here are some of the areas on which leaders should focus:
1. Understand the Psychological Effects of the Pandemic, and Know That They Will Likely Linger
Data my colleagues and I collected before and after another “Black Swan” event, Hurricane Katrina, showed that 18 months after the storm, depressed mood still stood at twice pre-Katrina levels. Residents of New Orleans were experiencing higher levels of disrupted sleep, trouble focusing, sadness, loneliness, feeling that they couldn’t “get going” and feeling they “couldn’t shake the blues.”
U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data shows that at least 40% of Americans have experienced some sort of mental health symptoms during the pandemic, and the Katrina research suggests that these effects may not abate quickly. For this reason, it is important for leaders to measure the psychological effects the pandemic has had on their team so they can combat them effectively.
2. Combat Those Effects
Three types of interventions can help companies support their teams effectively. The first is to provide online counseling to employees who need it, and the second is to provide resources that can help employees access social support. The Katrina research showed that people who received better social support demonstrated far fewer adverse mental health effects than people who had less support. The third intervention, which is especially powerful, is to craft structural changes that can reduce the stress that employees experience.
3. Recognize That the Pandemic Exacerbated Issues That Already Existed
Workplace stresses and the anxiety, depression and physical health effects that they create existed long before the pandemic began, as Jeffrey Pfeffer pointed out in his 2018 book “Dying for a Paycheck.” For many, the pandemic simply exacerbated them. Perhaps the “silver lining” of 2020 is that it focused attention on these issues and the organizational threat they pose in the form of decreased productivity and increased health care costs. That recognition offers companies an opportunity to increase employee loyalty and boost the bottom line.
4. Manage Remote Work Effectively
One of the inexorable shifts that the pandemic caused will likely be a net increase in remote work. If your organization operates in an industry in which remote work is feasible, ensuring that employees stay as connected as possible to other team members has become a critically important leadership task. Research demonstrates that connected co-workers enjoy higher levels of job satisfaction. There is also empirical evidence of the benefits of ensuring that managers make expectations clear to employees who are working remotely.
The net effects of the disruption 2020 brought will not become clear for some time. Some sociologists speculate that the transformation to work may be the most dramatic since the Industrial Revolution; others anticipate that the lasting changes may be more subtle. Who’s right? The answer depends in large part upon the choices that business leaders make as we move into 2021.