‘Worker’s block’ and the hidden risks of life after lockdown

In late March, I canvassed managers of multinationals about how they were tackling the growing coronavirus crisis. Drawing on the experience of their staff in China, they observed that adrenalin had energised locked-down employees at first. Only at the five-week mark did enforced remote working start to breed anxiety.

Most companies have long since passed that milestone. Ten weeks after I started working from home I took a week off. It was relaxing, but I emerged to contemplate the endless flatness ahead. Lockdown may be lifting, but a return to regular office life is way off. I have just taken delivery of stationery that will last me at least another year. The prospect of measuring out my life in A6 notebooks, on a bland diet of videocalls and virtual encounters is draining.

One colleague calls this “the blancmange era”. Many would willingly exchange their gristly daily stress for such blandness. The toll extracted by financial and job insecurity, or by high-pressure work on the front line of this pandemic, is vast. But workers there talk about the immediate future in similar terms. “Our lives are lived in a loop of hospital and home, with none of the teaching, meetings or networking we usually do, and I just do not think many doctors have the energy for this to go on,” one doctor told the Financial Times.

It is not hard to achieve commitment from your team during a crisis. Doubters’ stock objection to radical reform — “What you don’t understand about this is . . . ” — just evaporated under pressure, according to one business leader. But companies now recognise that the early solidarity is at risk of crumbling as the trade-offs ahead of a likely recession become more complex.

I spoke to one chief executive who had agreed an across-the-board salary sacrifice with his staff. He was now fielding complaints from people in one division who were fed up with having to work twice as hard to meet crisis-fed demand, while colleagues in another unit sat idle.

Some of the gestures that executives themselves made are also looking flimsy. In the US, many chief executives’ well-publicised decisions to renounce part of their salary sound hollow when compared with the potential value of stock option grants they received when shares were at a Covid-19 low. As furlough turns to redundancy, friction will increase.

Psychologists point out that past crises usually presaged periods of employee disengagement, dubbed “work inhibition” or “worker’s block”. As the FT’s bureau chief in New York after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, I noticed that colleagues who were directly involved in covering the aftermath seemed on the surface to cope better than those whose roles were less central.

Most companies have recognised that the pressure of the coronavirus crisis and the unusual working conditions it imposes increase the risk of burnout and significant declines in mental wellbeing. But they also need to pay attention to a wider group of staff, many of whom are now stationed semi-permanently out of sight of their bosses, for whom the blancmange era increases the risk of “bore-out”, or even dropout.

Jeffrey Kleinberg, Manhattan-based former president of the American Group Psychotherapy Association, worked with organisations after the 9/11 attacks, including staff at the Nasdaq market. He found signs of work inhibition among workers who failed to process the trauma. He anticipates an upsurge in similar symptoms after the wider coronavirus crisis. If a previously productive member of staff “seems to be not as creative, is going through the motions, or is more absent, these could be signs that something is broken that the company doesn’t know about”.

Anxiety inevitably holds people back, says Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson, who has studied the importance of providing “psychological safety” for workers. One small advantage over past crises is that this time everyone is affected in some way, so everyone ought to be able to discuss their trauma more openly. “It needs to be said early and often that you won’t be at risk when you speak up or offer a well-intended criticism,” she says.

Expect, then, an increased demand for group therapy for those organisations that can afford it. Nasdaq’s leaders, for example, managed to restore the morale and trust of their staff by inviting them to talk about their responses to 9/11. As a result, the organisation suffered a lower dropout rate among employees than it had anticipated.

But the main burden of motivating staff through the featureless desert ahead will fall again on managers. They were able to call on a heroic collective effort from their teams at the start of the crisis. Can they sustain that shared sense of mission through the long, flat grind of the coming months?