Return to Work Post-COVID?

Paradigm Human Performance recently held a webinar that outlined suggested measures business should consider adopting when staff begin returning to work. The advice was gained from health professionals who had experienced dealing with previous pandemics such as SARS, MERS and Ebola. Consequently, their experience was gained from being isolated following caring for patients rather than a mass lock-down that much of the world's population currently faces.

The two factors to consider are the physical and psychological impacts.

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The psychological impacts are far more prevalent and potentially longer lasting. But it must be remembered that not everyone's circumstances are the same. While many state they actually enjoyed aspects of lockdown, for others it is highly distressing and potentially psychologically damaging. For instance, some may be with their loved ones with access to open spaces and suffer little or no financial setback, while others may be trapped in small apartments, with no access to meaningful exercise whilst attempting to care for and home-school their children. Add to the mix acute financial setbacks and the impacts become clear.

Another debilitating factor these circumstances throw up is what Joanna Koretz, a Boston-based psychologist calls ‘decision fatigue’. This is caused by "a constant onslaught of dilemmas we’ve never dealt with before: Should I disinfect my groceriesHow do I stay in shape indoorsAre cardboard packages safe to touchCan I hug my kids?" With news changing all the time, “information is constant: whether it’s about the pandemic itself, whether it’s about things you should be doing, schedules for your kids, how to work best from home – it’s just a lot of information”.

What may not help are idealised ways people illustrate on social media how they are coping with the pandemic. There are numerous images of families enjoying the home schooling sessions, the challenging food recipes being created, new hobbies being taken up and how fun it is remaining connecting with so many people on Zoom. Of course, these images are invariably idealised and may bear little resemblance to the truth, but it doesn't stop people feeling they have failed because they are unable to live up to these unrealistic ideals.

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For the physical factors, expect initial work rate to be slow as people may not feel refreshed, after all they have not been on holiday! Perhaps initially consider shorter days, or a staged return to allow people to get back into the work rhythm. It is highly likely that workers will need to be re-trained and refreshed in their duties as they will have suffered skill-fade. This is especially important for work that is skills-based, hazardous, complex or involves operating machinery. Indeed, even if someone underwent refresher training just before the lockdown, they are likely to require retraining again as they have not been practising their role. Remember, the neural pathways assigned to a job role have not been activated so the 'furrows will need to be ploughed again'.

Poignantly, the medical professionals involved with previous pandemics advised how important it was to keep the quarantine as short possible. When and how to lift the COVID19 lockdown is currently an ongoing debate that the public has no control over. However, what did help those involved in previous pandemics was access to clear lines of information from employers, including two-way information, plus open, honest and frank dialogue was important. For instance, even expressing concerns about finances and factors with no known answers helped to create a sense of cohesion and that everybody was 'in it together'.

Many people will have felt varying degrees of psychological stress during they pandemic, but it is important to highlight that not only are such effects completely normal, but also to signpost to people where help is available if needed.

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The diagram above illustrates how people normally react to a crisis. Initially there is a strong urge to adapt, help and respond in any way possible. This peaks but then wains as time passes as the situation becomes the norm. So given that it is likely we may be hit by a second wave of the epidemic, it is also likely that the secondary response will be far less enthusiastic which may in turn allow the epidemic to respond even more vigorously.

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To give an idea of why many people will be suffering acute distress during the pandemic you only have to look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It is our basic psychological and safety needs, or 'foundations' that have been attacked the most. This pandemic has put finances, and therefore homes at risk along with shortages of many food types. Countless jobs are under threat or have been lost, plus of course there are the ever present threats to our heath, or indeed a very real risk of death. Further up the scale, lockdown has meant families are split up, and many relationships will have been severely impacted by confinement and a myriad of concerns. This helps explain why our psychological wellbeing is is being hit so hard.

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It is easy to forget those who have continued to work whilst their colleagues have been on furlough. They will have had to learn to adapt with a greatly reduced workforce, perhaps with a far higher workload, and maybe they have had to learn new tasks. All this with potentially very little time off, and having to cope with additional risk of exposure to COVID19. When their colleagues begin to return to work there could be a good deal of resentment by those who remained working. The returning staff will resume doing their previous roles, yet those who remained made these role their own, and they may even be questioned as to why things had not been done in a certain way! But it is also worth considering that the remaining workers will have created a safe way to remain virus free in the workplace, and with lots of people returning to invade their safe space will no doubt create conflict.

Given the factors considered businesses must realised that it will be very difficult to immediately get back to previous levels of productivity. There will be an overwhelming urge to return to profitability ASAP. But just as it is difficult to sprint from a standing start then consider that the workers will take a while to get up to speed. They will have skill-fade, many remaining concerns and they may be suffering psychological impacts. But it is also worthy remembering that the workplace may not be safe, equipment may not have been shut down in accordance with long-term 'mothballing' procedures, routine or vital maintenance may not have been conducted, leaks and rodent infestation may have occurred and software updates may be a long way out of date. So 'slow and steady' is the message for any start-up otherwise a spike in safety incident will be inevitable.

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Finally, please remember that many people will have lost friend or loved ones, or indeed had a brush with death after suffering from the effects of COVID19. So do take time to speak with work colleagues when things start to get back to normal.

Please consider all these factors on returning to work. Perhaps not all will apply, but many will. No doubt people will have had to adapt and improvise under the circumstances to get things done. Consequently, it is highly likely that this will have created a wide deviation from Work As Imagined compared with Work As Done. So review procedures, keep people informed and maintain clear, open and honest two-way dialogue. If in doubt, stop, think and reconsider.

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