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Reenergizing the workforce: How leaders can overcome pandemic fatigue

Leaders can recharge their organizations by intervening in four ways.

The COVID-19 crisis took a heavy toll on the workforce in 2020. We’ve witnessed many hospitalizations, deaths, and infections as well as the collapse of several businesses, massive unemployment, and food-security issues. In response to the crisis, we’ve also seen organizations reach important achievements in record time--redeploying talent, launching new business models and products, enabling faster decision making, and shifting their entire operations for greater efficiency. Morale rose when employees became more engaged and energized as they pulled together to address difficult and important issues.

Many months later, however, as the crisis drags on, organizations and employees are entering a prolonged period of disillusionment, grief, and exhaustion that could last as long as two years. We can expect to see a rise in depression, anxiety, and absenteeism along with higher rates of divorce, suicide, and employee attrition. During a McKinsey Live webinar, senior partner Aaron De Smet and partner Tiffany Vogel explained how leaders can reenergize their organizations, refocus their workforces, and emerge stronger from this period of pandemic fatigue that is just beginning.

Organizations with leaders who embrace “bounded optimism” are likely to build a resilient and adaptable workforce that’s ready for the next normal. These leaders communicate a realistic vision of the future that includes hope—but not false hope, which will lead only to greater disillusionment. Even after vaccines have been manufactured and distributed, going back to an old reality is a losing strategy for organizations. The strongest companies are reinventing themselves by embracing pandemic-driven change. Beyond communicating, leaders must also actively manage their workforces through the pandemic fatigue. While no perfect, one-size-fits-all blueprint exists, leaders can intervene in the following four ways to recharge their organizations.

Listen deeply for signs of exhaustion and other natural responses to stress. Leaders must use a deeper and more complete form of listening than organizations are accustomed to. Taking “listening tours” enables leaders to collect the insights and concerns of employees at all levels and then act in response to what they learn. Information from employee-experience surveys also helps organizations know how, and how urgently, to respond to issues. Taking the pulse of employees on a regular basis is particularly important now, when employee moods and needs are bound to fluctuate in response to pandemic fatigue.

Develop adaptability and resilience skills at scale. Organizations that were able to learn, grow, and adapt with agility to the initial COVID-19 crisis responded more successfully than their peers did. Those abilities will remain essential in the coming months, and their development should be a high priority for both leaders and their employees, particularly during stressful times. The presenters have developed a set of seven critical mindsets that can help people to shift to this mode of adaptability—for example, moving leaders who are in stressful and uncertain situations from thinking they know all the answers to a mindset of curiosity and exploration.

Focus on care, connection, and well-being. It’s vital for organizations to elevate the importance of personal well-being and help employees get the assistance they need. Employees need to be reminded of existing employee assistance plans and urged to use them. It’s not enough just to launch initiatives. Organizations need to listen to see how many colleagues are actively engaged in the programs that have been launched and find out if they are making things better or difficult and why. By taking care of themselves first, leaders can be good role models. Leaders who reveal some of their own vulnerability demonstrate that it’s OK not to always be OK and help remove the stigma associated with asking for help. Some organizations are supporting their employees by giving them additional paid time off during this time.

Unleash energy by evolving the organization’s operating model. Organizations need to find ways to make work easier by building new norms into the operating model. For example, starting every remote meeting five minutes later is a way to build in small breaks throughout the day. Many leaders plan to make the virtual working model permanent in the next normal, so that employees can keep the flexibility they’ve become accustomed to.

For more on this topic, please watch the webinar recording and read the article “Overcoming pandemic fatigue: How to reenergize organizations for the long run.”

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