Combatting Employee Malaise During the Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has upended how people work, and how they feel about that work — changes that may persist over the long term.

While many companies have adjusted to working remotely, the uncertain duration of the pandemic has left some employees feeling a sense of malaise and listlessness. Bank Director reached out to Brendan Smith, who holds both a clinical therapy degree and an MBA, to learn more about how office workers, managers and business leaders can address these feelings and prepare for the future.

As “The Workplace Therapist,” Smith helps companies eliminate workplace dysfunction through workshops, executive coaching, consulting and content on his blog, podcast and books. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

BD: What is your read of where the U.S. workforce is, five months into the coronavirus pandemic, based on what you’re hearing?
BS:
2020 has been an interesting year from the workplace standpoint. The biggest word I’m hearing from people who come to me is “motivation.” They’re not motivated anymore. Part of the reason why is they’re stuck. Every day is the same thing: coming down into their office, getting on the same Zoom calls at the same time. There’s no variety.

The other interesting thing that happened is that when people first started working virtually, they said, “I have all this free time because I’m not commuting.” Everyone realized that and started using what would have been commute time to schedule meetings. A lot of people I talk to have meetings starting at 7:30 or 8 in the morning, and have meetings that go all the way to 6:30 in the evening.

BD: A lack of motivation is also a problem for workplaces even in normal environments. What’s different about this broader lack of motivation?
BS:
The lack of motivation before was really tied to lack of growth: I’m not growing at the pace I want, I don’t have the right opportunities in front of me, I’m wanting something else. This is different. This lack of motivation is tied to feeling stuck or trapped: I don’t have options, I’m stuck doing the same thing over and over again, I can’t go out and explore. People feel like they’re out of options.

BD: Why is a lack of motivation detrimental to the workplace and why do employers and managers need to address it?
BS:
The lack of motivation results in people doing the bare minimum. That’s detrimental right now because everybody has things they need to be working on: pivoting, changing, adapting to survive. Survival requires more than the bare minimum. If everyone at your company is doing the bare minimum, you’re a sinking ship.

BD: What are you telling people dealing with this unique lack of motivation? How can people adapt or transition to this new environment and new reality?
BS:
What’s happening is that we thought things would come back to normal by this point but now, it feels more a rollercoaster: we’re going down another hill, and we’re not sure when the coaster will end. That uncertainty breeds anxiety, and it contributes even more [to the] feeling of [being] trapped.

Let’s talk about how you get out of this. There was a famous theologian at Emory University’s theology school named Jim Fowler who used to say “You want to give people hope and handles.” Hope and handles is the best antidote for the time we’re in now.

With hope — people need to anchor to something in the future that motivates and excites them. We know that there will be some kind of normal, at some point in the future. We just don’t know when.

What handles represents is “What can I do now?” In times of uncertainty, one antidote is clarity. While we can’t be clear on how things are going to look a month from now, we can be clear on this week. What’s something people can do this week that either leads them towards something they’re excited about in the future, or gives them what they need?

BD: Do you recommend fewer Zoom calls as well? Or is there anything that managers can do to bring hope and handles for their employees?
BS: Hope and handles is for everybody. But one thing that managers need to do in times of chaos is create more structure and consistency, while also mixing in some variety. Maybe it’s not always a Zoom call — I’ve been recommending people switch video calls into phone calls.

From a motivation standpoint, I think it’s healthy for managers to have some hope and handles conversations right now with members of their team, to help people reframe and feel a little more in control. Something like, “I know we’re stuck in this hamster wheel now, but when things get back to normal, what is one thing you want to either do more of, change or improve for your role specifically?” Or for something a little more structured, there’s a simple technique of asking three questions: Stop, start, continue. “What’s one thing that you think we should stop? What’s one thing we should start doing differently? And what’s one thing we should continue?”

The other thing I would say to managers is to really work on honoring and protecting boundaries. Boundaries are really important for us in life. The way technology has evolved has broken down all natural boundaries between work and home. For me, protecting boundaries is not doing work calls outside of certain hours. Managers need to recognize that everyone’s experiencing the blending of work and life now, and be respectful of people’s boundaries and the needs of their particular situation.

BD: I understand that a lot of the advice for helping people cope is to remind them of a more-normal future. But do you have any advice to help people become more comfortable with the ambiguity in the present?
BS: Let’s talk about this from a business or banking standpoint. There’s a school of thought that strategic planning is silly, because no one can see into the future and there are too many variables.

What you should consider doing instead is an exercise called “scenario planning.” You map out different scenarios and factor in the variables that may change; for example, rising or lowering Covid-19 infection rates. If it lowers and then everything gets to a healthy point, then what [does] the economy look like? If it goes up, what happens? If it stays flat, what happens? While you can’t predict the future, you’ve got enough different scenarios of what might happen so that when the future does start to unfold, you just map it to one of your scenarios.

It probably would not be unhealthy for managers to do a bit of planning with their teams on how they want to handle the remainder of the year. We’ve got enough months under our belt doing this virtual thing that it would probably would be a healthy exercise for teams to create a plan of how you want to operate, assuming that this is going to be the way that that we roll.