Leadership, Resources

Fatigue, Fear, and the Post-Pandemic Future

Are you noticing that your people are a little on edge?

Did a relatively innocuous error provoke a major reaction?

Are your own energy and emotional fluctuations surprising you these days?

Welcome to the club, it’s a big one.

More than a year into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic we are all tired. We are all drained. We are all vulnerable. We are all frayed around the edges. Even if we don’t see it.

And many leaders and organizations have had some unexpected eruptions of frustration and tension these last few weeks.

We shouldn’t be surprised. the global stress of a pandemic is like a heavy blanket piled on top of the typical challenges we experience. Fears of the physical, economic, social, and mental health impacts of COVID only escalate the regular experiences of life’s difficulties. Things are really hard.

The thing is, many of us aren’t aware of how fragile we, and our colleagues, really are right now. We’ve gotten so familiar with the stress that we have almost forgotten how it is affecting us. It’s hard to see how little margin we have left.

On top of that, the precautions we’ve taken for the last year have eliminated many of the informal interactions that usually maintain trust and often defuse tension. No casual chats in the office, no laughs during a staff retreat, no jokes, high fives, or supportive check ins in the ways we’ve relied n them in the past. Despite the old saying, familiarity usually doesn’t breed contempt; but distance absolutely leaves space for doubt, misunderstanding, and suspicion.

The end may be in sight. In many places we are seeing vaccination rates going up (even as a dangerous third wave of infection is growing). It seems more possible than ever that 4-5 months from now we will be resuming something much more like life as it was pre-COVID.

Leaders are champing at the bit to start preparing for that emergence. We are eager to put plans in place, make adjustments, and get moving on all the many old and new initiatives that will mark whatever the new normal becomes. Our followers are looking to us for both assurance that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer and that we will be ready when we get there.

But many people have no capacity to invest in that future right now and may even push back against plans that they will eventually happily support. Anything that feels like change, requires effort, or needs creativity can seem like too much when people are worn down and trust is (understandably) diminished. It’s not you, it’s just reality right now.

So what can we do?

As is so often the case, it’s back to basics. 

Overcommunicate: Tired people don’t receive or retain information easily. Get really clear on every message you want to communicate. say it simply and openly. Say it often. Say it again, in as many ways as you can, and then say it again and again.

Invest in Your Team: No matter how hard you’ve worked on ensuring that your people know you care about them, assume trust is weaker than you think. You probably need to demonstrate compassion and support before you introduce the next initiative or effort. Consider something like our Self-Care and Stress Strategies webinar as a way of showing your team that you see their reality. Relationships are the key to organizational culture and it is culture, far more than strategy or execution, that will determine how you come out of this.

Anticipate Delays: Whatever happens in the next several months, none of us will have predicted it perfectly. There are likely to be more than the usual surprises and challenges even after the pandemic isn’t the dominant narrative. Set targets with as much flexibility and discernment as possible and prepare for a wider range of outcomes. Better to be surprised by remarkable success than frustrated with falling short.

Protect Yourself: Parents are familiar with the experience of elementary school kids coming home and being terrors after angelic behaviour all day at school. Some of us have been holding it together so hard for so long that a crash is looming. That’s true for everyone, but possibly even moreso for leaders who may not have allowed ourselves to acknowledge or deal with our own struggles of the last year. Know your vulnerabilities, find some safe people to be honest with, and find the better ways to expose and process your own difficulties.

Be Bold: Yes, we need to be realistic about the depth and degree of fatigue and loss we are all experiencing. We also need to step into the responsibilities of leadership with all the skills, character, and courage we possess. Your organization and the people you serve need the best you and your team can muster to guide the way into what’s next. It is true that “fatigue makes cowards of the best of us”, but we can find strength, wisdom, and hope to envision possibilities worth the best we can bring to our work.

Leader, you are not alone. 

If Catalyst can provide a team building or leadership development session for your team please contact us. And if what you really need is someone who can hear your heart, as messy as it may be, and offer some compassionate encouragement to find the way forward don’t hesitate to reach out to me directly (chris at catalystfoundation.ca). It will be my privilege to hold space with you and help you find the next steps.

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