What leaders can do to counteract pandemic fatigue



Noun; extreme tiredness resulting from mental or physical exertion.

Who knew back in 2019 that we’d spend most of the following year talking about ‘lockdowns’, ‘social distancing’ and ‘bubbles’ (and not the nice fizzy kind either!)? And yet here we are – all part of our everyday language now. And the latest addition to the pandemic lexicon, ‘fatigue’. Before, we might have described ourselves as being tired, worn out, even exhausted. But ‘fatigue’ seems to bring a new depth to how we’re now defining our current energy levels. It’s a word we’re hearing more and more when working with clients.

In talking about this at Maier we’ve come to the following conclusions – along with some ideas as to how to combat the ‘end of year weariness’ many of us are experiencing.

Change without end

We’ve spoken about this before – it’s actually something we cover in our ‘Managing the Emotions of Change’ workshop. What began as a ‘temporary fix’ – along with the high adrenaline actions that came with it, has now become ‘business as usual’. That in itself isn’t so bad, but very few us will have experienced such relentless change – often beyond our control and with no end point to aim for. It’s added a level of caution to our planning – the unbridled optimism that would once have accompanied the recent vaccine announcements is instead being handled with more restraint. We’re not quite so keen to date stamp a ‘return to normal’ in 2021 – we’ve become wary of raising hopes only to have them dashed by the next round of announcements. There’s definitely a sense of disillusionment in the air.

In a team event we facilitated this week (virtual of course) we asked for a quick doodle on how the team members saw themselves in relation to change. The results, captured so quickly and spontaneously, were not only fascinating but also very revealing of the individuals’’ varying levels of emotionality, vulnerability and resilience. Change without end was the bit that most perturbed people.

Invisible boundaries

We can’t tell you how many coaching conversations of late include the subject of work/life boundaries. Even if we’re able to literally switch off the lap top at the end of day, physically and mentally we remain wired – often well into the evening. We find ourselves responding to emails way past normal working hours, we begin earlier to allow ourselves ‘quiet time’ before the Zoom onslaught begins and before we know it the line between work and home blurs beyond recognition. Along side this is the continuing need to respond reactively to whatever drama lands in our inbox that day. No wonder teams are feeling so drained.

The human touch

As proficient as we’ve become at working and living on-line there’s no denying that even the hardiest ‘Introverts’ are craving some in-person time with colleagues. And this isn’t just speculative – there’s science behind it.

“Humans need social connection, we need and want to be a part of a group that means something to us. It’s partly how we define our identities. For many people, seeing ourselves as part of a meaningful group is how we feel well and stay well. We even have feelgood hormones that are invoked by social connection. Oxytocin, brought about by social connection reduces cortisol levels and other stress responses in our bodies, also reducing feelings of anxiety and psychological discomfort.” Dr Paul Brewerton – Strengthscope*

*Strengthscope – a powerful and insightful tool we use with teams and individuals

What leaders can do to counteract pandemic fatigue

A lot of what we can do to manage and protect our energy levels and mental well-being begins with a bit of self-discipline – sounds harsh but it can come down to operating stricter self-driven policies around choice like saying ‘no’ when your usual default position is a ‘yes’

But there are also things we can do as leaders to help those in our teams (and indeed ourselves) who might be struggling with fatigue.

  • Inject a healthy dose of optimism into communications and messaging;

    tempered with reality but drawing on the positives and celebrating the wins – however small they might be. Plus, using positive language, watching out for unconscious negativity in how you are phrasing things. If you’re naturally more of a black hat thinker* you may need to shift on this a bit more than usual

    *Edward de Bono six thinking hats, an old favourite that we’re finding clients asking us to resurrect in our work together.

  • Listen

    If anything video conferencing can be a benefit here. Take time to check-in and let the team/individuals set the agenda – what is it they want to talk about? And then focus on the needs that are most acute. This is where less is more comes into play in terms of agendas.

  • From resilience to adaptability

    As important as resilience has been (and still is) our new watchword should be ‘adaptability’. How can we continue to adjust to changing conditions and modify how we work to meet new demands?

  • Legitimise best practices through role modelling;

    If we as leaders are responding to out of hours emails, sending requests at weekends etc. we’re sending out the wrong message. Work the way we want others to and explore why people might feel the need to work late/early – don’t just assume you know and try to avoid the trap of doing it yourself – your own mental wellbeing is as vital as everyone else’s.

  • Be creative in how you connect

    Online isn’t easy but it’s far less limiting than it might first appear. At Maier we regularly come together (almost every day) to share ideas and create new ways of engaging with others in the virtual world. Chat boxes, gifs, Zoom breakout rooms are all easy ways to lift what may have become mundane and repetitive in the past few months. Our clients offer us new tricks and tips nearly every week too.

  • Take on the challenge

    How you position what happens next as leaders sets the tone for how others will respond. There’s no doubt that 2021 will be another tough year but to use one of our favourite words – see the next few months as a quest, rather than a challenge. Be curious about what could happen, not fearful about what might happen.