Coping with COVID – Business Leadership and Employee Fatigue

A lot has changed since January 21, 2020, when the U.S. announced the first confirmed case of the COVID-19 virus on its soil. Like every aspect of society, business leaders and their employees continue to cope with the impacts. And as weeks turn to months with no clear sign of when normality will resume and what that new normal will look like, leaders and employees are coping with something else: new levels and manifestations of fatigue. These compounding challenges should be acknowledged and addressed to avoid making matters worse.

Fatigue comes in many forms, both physical and mental. For example, cumulative fatigue occurs when several days of less than normal sleep or extended hours awake occur. Emotional fatigue can appear when one experiences a complete drain of energy after a sudden or extreme emotional release stemming from episodes of sadness, anxiety, or fear. COVID-19 is inducing these and other forms of fatigue for business leaders as they worry about their employees and their businesses and wrestle with questions such as:

  • Am I going to have to furlough or terminate people to keep the business afloat?
  • Will employees come back to work for us when we are able to rehire or reinstate them?
  • How will decisions I have to make now affect the long-term health of the business?
  • Am I taking the right approach to communication, change management and messaging?
  • Are the proper pieces in place to support physical and mental health and safety?
  • Does our messaging reinforce to customers and employees that they are a top priority?

Having to summon confident answers to questions like these in the pressure-cooker context of the coronavirus is enough to trigger fatigue in even the best of us. So, how can leaders relieve this pressure? Below, we explore four fatigue-fighting actions leaders can take to put their businesses and employees in the best positions possible.

  1. Accept What Can and Cannot Be Controlled

The buck stops here… It falls and rests on me… There are no office hours for leaders… It is common for leaders to lean on the literal forms of familiar phrases such as these. The reality, however, is that many aspects of business and life in general are not in our control. Leaders should not place undue responsibilities and burdens on themselves for a pandemic they did not produce, for regulations they did not write, or for how others may act.

Leaders can find comfort, however, in knowing that there is much they can control. They can control their attitude, which will significantly influence employees and the business for better or worse. Leaders can establish priorities for the business that employees can understand and align to with a shared sense of purpose. Leaders can also control their actions, providing an example for others to follow or aspire to.

  1. Communicate with Consistency, Genuineness, and Empathy

While it’s said that actions speak louder than words, effective communication has been and will continue to be vital throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Words do matter. Hearing the right message from the right people at the right times can play a big role in fighting fatigue. Conversely, a lack of communication, transparency, or poorly prepared messages can further inflame already heightened sensitivities and start a downward spiral.

In short, employees are looking for leaders to lead. They want crisp information they can rely on and a logical plan of action that paints the way forward. Employees also want communication to be a two-way street, one that ensures their concerns are heard and provides a direct path for getting new questions answered as they arise. Leaders lessen fatigue for both themselves and their employees by being proactive and planful in communicating, as well as by demonstrating predictability and cohesiveness across their leadership team.

  1. Ask for Help When Help is Needed

By nature, leaders are often fix-it-oriented people who take pride in handling more on their own than others may ordinarily be comfortable with. It’s an admirable quality, but the very best leaders actively recognize that they can’t do everything themselves. This is especially true given the rapidly changing climate and complexities of COVID-19.

To make decisions that best balance the needs of their business and people, leaders should get input and insights from finance- and HR- focused experts as well as the advice of legal counsel. Doing so provides a stronger foundation of decision-making data, instills confidence that all angles and avenues are properly considered, and lessens the burdens of having to decide and solve everything alone. In fact, the very act of rapid and repetitive decision making in isolation deteriorates the quality of one’s subsequent decisions.

  1. Pause to Reflect on the Mission and “Why” of the Business

Haste can surface as a familiar side effect of fatigue. It is easy in instances like these for leaders to mistake “I need to act deliberately and decisively” for “I just want to get this over with.” When this occurs, leaders should take a breath, move away from the micro-nature of the decision at hand, and reflect on bigger picture items, like why they began their business in the first place. While this alone does not eliminate fatigue, it can serve a powerful reminder that infuses leaders with the power to persevere. The mission statements below provide solid examples:

  • Uber – …ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion…
  • Google – …organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful…
  • Kickstarter – …help bring creative projects to life…
  • Tesla – …accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy…
  • Goodwill – …enhance the dignity and quality of life of individuals and families…

Overwhelmed is Also an Opportunity

It is completely natural and understandable for leaders to feel overwhelmed and fatigued by the seemingly unrelenting waves of decisions and unwelcome outcomes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. But as we recognize these feelings, we must also recognize the opportunities they create – the opportunity to display strong character, establish clear goals, communicate with authenticity and empathy, inspire and encourage others, and provide a vision for a better tomorrow.

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