26 Nov Redefining the Post-Pandemic World of Work
Patrick Psaila interviewed by Dayna Camilleri Clarke
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted workforces globally during 2020 and continues to do so. The short-term consequences were sudden and often severe: Millions of people were furloughed or lost jobs, and others rapidly adjusted to working from home as offices closed. Many other workers were deemed essential and continued to work, yet under new protocols to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. While some changes may stick around long after COVID-19 is gone, others will continue to evolve, but how do we adapt in the meantime?
The COVID-19 landscape has changed the employment landscape on many levels, from remote working to job insecurity and other new industries. Do you think any changes will be long-term?
The COVID-19 pandemic can be regarded as a significant disruptor similar to that of a war. Throughout history, every major and long-term disruptor has brought about permanent change as humanity adjusts, adapts, and innovates as a way of coping and re-establishing balance. One such change that seems to be here to stay in the shift to hybrid working conditions is where employees work part remote and part from the office.
Do you believe there is such a thing as the “new normal”, or life will resume as was before the pandemic once the dust settles?
We tend to re-establish balance just like an ecosystem recovers after a significant catastrophe or natural disaster. Chernobyl is one example. However, I believe there will be elements of a new normal in the way people work and play even after the dust settles. This is because the pandemic has forced us to look for alternatives, and sometimes, these same alternatives have proved to be an improvement on what we had before. For example, many people took up sports activities and hobbies that could be practised even with social distancing and have become keen and enthusiastic about them. One such hobby is kayaking, which over the past year and a half has exploded in popularity. Other examples are online shopping from local outlets and food deliveries from restaurants. While these existed before the pandemic, they have now become the norm, and in my opinion, they will remain.
Have you seen an increase in mental health issues throughout the pandemic?
Yes, there has been an increase in mental health issues. Mental health professionals struggle to cope with the rise of depression and anxiety disorders and stress-related psychological problems. This is not surprising. The pandemic brought about the need for significant adjustment to the way we go about our daily life, and in many cases, the change was far from pleasant. Periods of social isolation because of quarantine and lack of social connection because of various measures have also brought about a lot of psychological distress, especially in the elderly and in people who already tended to be lonely. There was also the constant fear of becoming infected with the virus, the continuous media bombardment about the number of cases, the number of hospitalisations, deaths, variants, vaccines and more. People lost their jobs, some had to relocate. All this has created widespread insecurity and apprehension resulting in people becoming constantly hypervigilant and reactive to bad news. Over time, these factors start to wear us down and fatigue kicks in.
Why are people burning out more?
There are several reasons why people are burning out more, and ironically, one of them is working from home or remotely. This is because of the blurred boundaries between working and personal time. When people do not clearly distinguish between their work and the rest of their lives, they tend to work beyond regular hours or spread their work tasks over a more extended period. Another contributor to burnout is the constant interaction on virtual platforms such as zoom and teams. Research has identified that interaction over virtual platforms is more tiring because it is an artificial social interaction environment. For example, it is highly unnatural to see one’s face while having a conversation. This tends to make us feel more self-conscious when we are communicating and, as a result, adds strain on our brain. Another common source of burnout came from looking after young children and sometimes home schooling them while also coping with work. This reality affected primarily women who, for the most part, ended up having to carry the burden of childcare even when having to cope with their jobs. One other source of burnout has been the lack of social and human contact because of remote work. When people work at the office, they can talk, take breaks together, and offer support through knowledge and workload sharing.
How can employers support staff as they transition into the new normal?
Employers need to know that transitioning to the new normal is a further adjustment in its own right. Many people are coming out of a period that was difficult and challenging to negotiate. Unfortunately, this means that several people may still be somewhat vulnerable and prone to suffer from mental health issues. One thing that employers can do to support their workforce is to introduce corporate wellness programmes. These consist of structured initiatives that promote mental health and wellbeing.
Why have soft leadership skills become more critical now than ever?
More than ever, the importance of leaders’ ability to empathise and understand their employees has becoming a critical skill in facilitating a smooth transition to the new normal. Adaptability is also being considered an essential leadership skill during times of accelerated change. They also need to be sources of inspiration and courage for their people and generate hope and positivity for the future.
What coping advice would you give to individuals experiencing physical and emotional pressures resulting from the pandemic?
The first piece of advice I would give is to take care of the basics. Health nutrition, plenty of exercise and sufficient rest and sleep are critical to wellbeing, especially during periods of prolonged duress. It is also essential to reach out to friends and family for support and if you feel that you are struggling to cope, seek professional help by talking to a mental health professional.
All of us will ultimately have to return to the office, but its almost impossible not to fear the potential for becoming infected once we’re all back. So how do we deal with the worry and fear this causes?
While we must take all the necessary and available precautions such as vaccines, mask-wearing, ventilation, avoiding overcrowded environments, etc., we need to relax and try to live as everyday life as possible without obsessing about becoming infected. By being responsible and sensible, we can reduce the chances of infection to a level like the occurrence of other potential predicaments that we hardly consider in our daily lives.
Many colleagues and families are dealing with differences of opinion on how to handle COVID-19. Some remain sheltered in place and follow the rules, while others are more cavalier and venture into the public as if it were normal. What is some advice on compassionately communicating with others without growing frustrated by their actions?
The first thing is to be respectful towards people who prefer to be more cautious and play safe even if they seem to be overdoing it. On the other hand, we need to be assertive with people who do not respect the rules and ask them to do so when they are in our presence. People respond, adjust, and adapt in their way, and we cannot expect everyone to behave and see things the way we do. So, respect, patience, sensitivity, and assertiveness, are vital attributes that we need to practice during these times.