Originally published by Harvard Business Review.
Most of the country has been sheltering in place and working from home for some time now. This change came with obvious challenges to getting work done for those who live with others — be they roommates, partners, spouses, or children. Then, there are those employees who do not have others at home and now have no commute. One might intuitively think these individuals would be just as productive or even more so, given that research shows remote workers get more done.
To be sure, this might be the case for some people. However, my conversations with dozens of clients and colleagues in the last two months tell me otherwise. Regardless of each person’s situation, the resounding theme that I’ve heard from working professionals, spanning multiple sectors, is that they are not only getting less done, but they are emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted.
Much as our hospital system has limited capacity, so do we. In addition to the numerous, tangible challenges many employees now face in getting work done, there are several intangible challenges that we all face that greatly reduce our capacity to do work. These include:
Emotional and cognitive fatigue
The pandemic has created an emotional and cognitive “tax” that takes up limited capacity which, under prior normal circumstances, was previously free to focus on work. The result is that many people — even those with minimal distractions at home — have experienced significantly more emotional and cognitive fatigue than usual.
While many people, on the surface, report that they’re “doing fine,” they are to some degree, worried for their own wellbeing, the health of a loved one considered to be high-risk, struggling with feelings of guilt in falling short at work or in helping their child with school, or actually dealing with the direct impact of the virus — one client of mine divulged that she had to consider how to share the news with her children that an elderly neighbor had passed away from Covid-19. And now that states have started to gradually open up and organizations think about what going back to the office might look like, there are additional worries and concerns employees may have now about their safety going forward.
Whether the feelings of worry, anxiety, grief, or guilt are conscious or not, they are like a sub-routine, running in the background of our operating system, taking up limited space on our hard drive. Research by Roy Baumeister also shows that suppressing or faking our emotions — which one might do with the aim of getting work done — does not come without a cost. It depletes our limited willpower, and wears us down.
Another phenomenon that is leaving people feeling wiped out is compassion fatigue. In providing empathy to others and making an effort to understand their personal circumstances to better support them, we inadvertently further deplete our energy and mental resources. Trisha, a client of mine in management consulting, shared that the impact of tending to the emotional wellbeing of her team has left her feeling exhausted, which she had not anticipated. Personally, as an executive coach and someone in a “helping” profession, having reached out to support a number of leaders, I have felt completely drained many days by 3 pm, despite getting sufficient sleep. A number of my coaching colleagues are feeling the same effect.
The fact that our emotional state directly impacts our physical wellbeing is well documented. Studies show that 80% of doctor visits for physical symptoms involved a social-emotional problem. In particular, the upheaval many people have experienced since the pandemic began has led to increased depression and anxiety. For many people, these conditions can lead to feeling physically tired or even chronic fatigue, in addition to causing reduced focus, memory, and sleep, making us even more tired and less productive.
Any good manager knows that we need to adjust to the current situation. This means that, at least for the short-term, managers must recalibrate their expectations. Below are some guidelines for managers as to what this looks like in practice:
- Re-prioritize projects and deadlines — identify what can be put on the back burner (or even cancelled altogether) and what deadlines can be extended.
- Re-assess the level of detail or quality needed for these projects and your metrics for success. What is good enough or realistically achievable?
- Re-balance work among team members, taking time to understand their personal situations and individual differences in capacity.
- Expect the same level of responsiveness or availability as before.
- Assume others handle this type of situation the same as you or the same as how they’ve handled other types of stressful situations in the past. This is a whole new ballgame.
- Assume that others will tell you when they feel overwhelmed or need help — you will need to give them explicit permission to do so and show that it’s okay for them to ask for support.
To be clear, adjusting expectations is not to suggest that managers shirk responsibilities or be lax, or that they shouldn’t strive for results or hold people accountable. This pandemic is a marathon that we are all running together. And as with sheltering-in-place measures, adjusting our expectations of others’ productivity is meant to be temporary. By recalibrating expectations now, managers will get much more out of their people in the long run.