The Long Road Ahead: Thriving Through Fatigue

One of the biggest problems we face is the challenge of Fatigue. And Fatigue has an impact on the Pandemic, our relationships, and our work.

The Pandemic has been going on for almost six months, many of our cities are slipping backward in infection, and the political system in most countries is dysfunctional. Here in the United States, we have no coordinated effort to fight the virus and most of us feel trapped in a paradox. On one hand, we have amazing digital tools to work, communicate, shop, and entertain ourselves. On the other hand, our health, freedom, and ability to plan ahead feels totally uncertain.

And according to the world’s best epidemiologists (not the political ones), we are still in the early stages. According to Jonathan Smith, a Yale Epidemiologist, we cannot ease up on social distancing – not for a minute. In his most recent article he describes how sneaky this virus can be. “If your son visits his girlfriend, and you later sneak over for coffee with a neighbor, your neighbor is now connected to the infected office worker that your son’s girlfriend’s mother shook hands with.” In other words, every little interaction outside your own quarantine group will break the chain and enable the virus to grow again. And this is what’s happening now.

Just this week we see a relapse in Washington State, Hong Kong, Florida, and all over California. It’s not because we didn’t try social distancing (we’ve been home in California since mid-March), it’s because we suffered from fatigue and we “just went out to dinner” or “went and got a haircut.” And as Jonathan explains in his article, without a relentless and sustained social distancing, this highly infectious virus will keep coming back. “It is unforgiving to unwise choices.” We are still in the early stages of the virus’s trajectory, so we need to bear down for the long haul.

Bill Gates, recently interviewed in the Economist, believes we will be living with the Pandemic through early 2022, so we have well over a year ahead. In fact, as I’ve listened to his interviews over the last six months, his feels more pessimistic every time he talks. In this latest podcast he discusses why the problem of mask-wearing may not even go away if Joe Biden wins the election.

In the business world, most companies are just getting tired. Last night we had a call with some of the largest companies in Asia, and for an entire hour every HR leader wanted to talk about how they need help managing fatigue. Most companies took some time off in August, but the fatigue is still here. Wal-Mart just announced they are not going to be open for Thanksgiving, focused on giving their Associates a break. And companies that want their employees to go back to work are giving them options and assuring them that “the workplace will be even cleaner than your home.” (L’Oreal.)

In a few weeks we’ll be publishing our newest research on business response to the Pandemic, and what you’ll see is a set of superhuman efforts by HR teams, facilities and IT teams, finance and legal teams, and safety teams to help keep companies afloat. And all this effort has worked. Even though the unemployment numbers ticked up this month, ADP’s new Workforce Vitality Report shows that wages are finally increasing (a 6% annual rate) and job switching is also ticking up. But there is a massive transformation taking place before our eyes.

An Economic Transformation Disguised As A Pandemic

Let me point this out with clarity. The Pandemic is not a financial recession: it is a fast-paced economic transformation. We’re transforming our companies into low-touch, high-safety businesses and we’re doing it a light speed. So while many employees are still looking for work, there are more than 20 million new jobs open and many of us are working harder then we have in our lives.

When the Pandemic first began, I reflected about The Big Reset, and how it somehow felt like karma. We were guilty of global warming, pollution, traffic, and ever-increasing income inequality – so maybe the Pandemic was here for a purpose. Well we now understand what that purpose really is: it’s a realization by all of us that nature is really in charge, and that we, as humans, have to focus on health, wellbeing, safety, and protection. The mask-deniers somehow felt that their bravado and strength would overcome the virus’s ability. Well even they have now capitulated, and we are simply re-engineering our society to be more safe.

For those of us in the business world, safety is not a new topic. Oil companies, utilities, and manufacturers have had safety programs for years – but we white-collar workers were happy to hurt ourselves with stress, overwork, lack of sleep, or lack of exercise. Now everything in business is focused on being safe – delivering safe products and services to customers, creating safe and protected workplaces, and supporting employees in their personal and family lives to be safe and healthy at home. And we’re doing it at light speed.

Hyper-Engagement with Hyper Stress

There’s another paradox going on. We’re hyper-engaged digitally, yet highly stressed emotionally.

Employee engagement and productivity is skyrocketing. We’re getting more done; we’re feeling more engaged; and we’re getting a lot of support from our companies. But at the same time the data shows that people are highly stressed by health risk, uncertainty, and the enormous problem of children going back to school. The most stressed part of the workforce is now young families, working mothers, and single employees working at home – and despite the online yoga classes and bread-baking videos, people are just tired.

What do we do when we feel fatigue? We take a rest. Human beings operate in a cycle, and when you wake up every day feeling tired it’s time to get out of your chair, take a walk, or take a few days off. As I mentioned to the CHROs last night, we all have a lesson to learn from the Military.

Fatigue Management: Lightening The Load

Many of the best-practices for dealing with the Pandemic come from the military, and Fatigue is a good example. As many studies have shown, Fatigue Management is what wins or loses wars. And what the military has learned is that it’s not enough to give people a sense of purpose and mission if they are carrying a 100-pound load. We need to “lighten the load” and give them time to rest, so they can maintain the pace and pressure it takes to win. A few lessons you can apply at work:

  • Reduce workload by clarifying goals. In our newest research on Pandemic Response (coming out in the next month) we found that agile performance management directly contributes to success. This means telling people “what not to do” and giving them crystal clear goals. As the US Army states clearly, “giving soldiers the right tools and mission is important: lightening the load so they can persist is essential.”
  • Create cadence and recovery cycles in the business. In the military and many operational jobs (ie. maintaining 24×7 power plants or flying airplanes) people work in shifts. Between shifts they have a few days off to rest and recover. Well for most of us there are no “recovery cycles” – you have to build them in. Taking time off on Friday; creating a week of rest for the company; teaching managers how to reduce the length and frequency of meetings – these are all good ideas we have to practice.
  • CEO-level focus is needed. Finally, we have to remember that Fatigue is a problem that falls on the shoulders of the CEO. If the CEO doesn’t encourage people to rest and pace themselves, he or she will create more fatigue by nature. Financial reporting and the stock market doesn’t take a rest – but people need rest to survive. It isn’t enough to delegate Wellbeing to the CHRO and ask the HR department to own this problem. Senior business leaders have to model, encourage, and forgive people to rest.

We are preparing to launch a major new Josh Bersin Academy program on Resilience (The Resilience Workshop) and one of the topics we learned about is cadence. Companies (and individuals) have to live with a sense of cadence. Times of stress and growth, followed by times of rest and recovery.

As we enter the “long war” against the Pandemic around the world, let’s take the month of August and think about getting some rest. The Europeans often take weeks off in August, and I know many companies in the US that are doing the same. The military teaches courses in “Fatigue Management,” because it’s one of the biggest threats in war. We need to practice it too.

As we prepare to launch our Resilience Workshop in September, let me give you just a few tips:

  • Take time off to rest, walk, and exercise every day. Stand up and walk around.
  • Turn off the TV and stop watching Twitter.
  • Take it slow. Don’t carry to heavy a load: you’ll get more done if you pace yourself over time.
  • If you’re a manager, help show people what “not to do.” Help people find focus, and don’t waste their time.
  • Turn off your Zoom camera and shorten meetings to 15 minutes if you can. Stop every meeting early.
  • Tell your team to take a week off. And don’t email while they’re gone. Things will be fine when they come back, and work will resume better than ever.
  • Be patient with your colleagues, peers, and yourself. People always want to do the best – right now it may just take a little more time.
  • Have some empathy for leadership. They are tired too. Ask them how they’re doing and let them know you care.

Stay tuned for much more from us on the topic of Resilience. I hope you have a restful August, the Fall will be here before you know it.