The COVID hangover: ignore it at your peril

Jo Clarkson CEO of Meta explains why it’s important for business leaders to be focussing on the significant risks that the ‘Covid hangover’ bring to every organisation.

You’re probably fed up of hearing about Covid. I know I am. And yet, it’s a big mistake to ignore the longer-term effects of Covid on your leaders, your workforce and your organisation.

Now is the time to be investing time and resource to ensure that your organisation doesn’t suffer from one almighty Covid hangover.

The stress hangover

Organisations are already starting to see long-term sickness and stress-related illness rates spike, never-mind the ‘ping-demic’ from the NHS Track and Trace app.

According to new ONS data, the UK is running on levels of stress and anxiety that we haven’t seen in years. In 2018 our stress and anxiety scores averaged about 2.7/10. In 2019 that went up to 2.9/10. At the peak of Covid it was 5.2/10. Since then it has rarely been below 4.0/10 and is currently (week of August 15) at the elevated level of 3.8/10.

As a business consultancy, Meta have been researching stress and resilience as part of our ‘working smarter not harder’ business model for years now. What we know is that the levels of stress that people have been under in the past 18 months is probably the number one risk to your business right now.

When you’re under stress, your body does not act normally. It’s in fight-or-flight mode, which restricts blood-flow and nutrients to most of your vital organs, increases your blood pressure, and stops all cellular repair and regeneration.

It effectively turns off your immune system: not helpful when you’re in a new wave of the pandemic. And it switches your brain to the reactive subconscious part, which is not great if you’re a leader who needs to solve complex problems because thinking skills that are the remit of your conscious not your subconscious.

The workload hangover

Then there’s the issue of virtual working. Having smart technology that enabled us to work from home was a godsend. At first working from home was a good thing: having your government-prescribed hour of exercise each day, seeing a bit of green, and having increased flexibility in working hours as we home-schooled our kids or took them to and from school. We all spent more time with the family and actually took lunch breaks for the first time in years.

But then as we got used to the ‘new normal’, the tide of work starting to come back in and fully invaded our homes and home-life.

By September 2020, according to research from the USA’s National Bureau of Economic Research, meetings had increased by 12% compared with pre-Covid levels (and I think we can all agree that there wasn’t exactly a lack of meetings before).

More importantly, the average workday had increased by 8.2% which equates to 48.5 minutes extra per day and a whopping 4 hours extra a week. To put that into context, we have seen a rise in the average work-week in the UK from 40.5 hours in 2000, to 42 hours in 2019. That’s a rise of 1.5 hours over 19 years. But in less than 9 months of the Covid pandemic we added another 4 hours.

Think about it from your own personal perspective for a moment. As a senior leader, are you working less or more hours than you were pre-Covid? If you’re working less you’re the first leader I’ve met that is.

Add in the fact that Covid significantly affected the ability of most businesses to perform at the level they’d have liked to, and as we come out of Covid we are in a situation where organisations are playing catch-up and asking for more from everyone.

We need higher productivity, not less; a workforce that can do more in less time. We need a smarter working workforce.

That’s normal when business is in crisis. It’s precisely what happened after the financial crash in 2008. We were all asked to do more, and we happily stepped up to the plate. (Bottom line, none of us wanted to lose our jobs and none of us wanted our businesses to fail). But this time it’s different, significantly different.

The resilience hangover

Nearly 18 months of elevated stress and anxiety, combined with a relentless workload, has had its impact on our overall resilience. Without the opportunity to get away on holiday we’ve not been able to recharge our resilience batteries.

The pressure to deliver has not stopped. The drive to play catch-up has meant that most of us are running on empty. We’ve stepped up to the plate over and over, bounced back so many times that we’ve lost our bounce-back-ability. That’s not just business leaders. It’s the vast majority of the workforce too.

It seems unfair on business to get this double whammy: first the challenges of surviving Covid; and now the need for people to give more at a time when they have nothing left to give. Just as we’re coming out of the worst of the pandemic, the Covid hangover kicks in.

So what can you do about the Covid hangover?

What can you do to mitigate the risk that your business will inevitably face?

You need to invest time and money to ensure that your organisation, your leaders, your people are prepared for what is to come.

This is preventative medicine. It’s like taking a glass of water and a paracetamol before bed when you know you’ve overdone it a bit. It means that in the morning you’re likely to be OK, rather than struggling to function.

Although I’m using a humorous metaphor here, let’s be clear there’s nothing humorous about the risk that the Covid hangover brings to your business. There’s nothing funny about your leaders’ and staff’s mental and physical health being affected by what is to come.

There are two main things that you need to focus on as a business.

  1. Give your people the tools to work in a smarter way, so they can perform at their productive best, getting more done without killing themselves in the process.
  2. And ensure they have a personalised toolkit to deal with the elevated stress that they have been under. Give them strategies that will help them rebuild their resilience so that they can cope with the inevitable stresses that are still to come if businesses are to recover themselves.

We have all been working with smarter technology for years. But for most of us that just means we’re working harder and longer hours than we ever have. As we move to a hybrid world of work, now is the time to invest, not in technology, but in your people.

Give them the practical tools they need to work in a smarter not harder way, not because it’s the right thing to do (although it is) but because it makes sound business sense.

Be very clear: your bottom line depends on the ability of your staff and your leaders to perform. Creativity, innovation, quality, productivity, and therefore your profits and ability to deliver, all suffer when your people are running on empty and do not know how to work in a smarter way.  

Yes, it’ll take a little time, but actually much less than you think.

Yes, it’s an investment in your people, but actually much less than you think.

The return on that investment is the ability for your leaders, your staff and your organisation to thrive in the challenging times that are still to come. Don’t let your organisation get the mother of all Covid-hangovers.

Now is the time to take your medicine and invest in the long-term resilience of your people and your organisation.


Jo Clarkson is CEO of Meta UK a leading consultancy in the field of business excellence. His biggest passion is sharing smarter working practices that enable the leaders, teams and organisations that he works with to thrive in these challenging times.

© Business Reporter 2021

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