Have you got “pandemic fatigue”?

Person wearing face mask

All around the world, people are living in a bubble. It’s not the kind of “bubble” that allows you to meet up with someone else regularly regardless of local social distancing restrictions. Instead, the bubble in which we all find ourselves is working in relatively isolated ways, with little travel and rarely meeting people outside a select few.

That means your experiences become limited and your knowledge of the wider world gets slimmer. People who live in partial isolation like this (which is all of us nowadays) tend to focus on what matters to them. We think less about others, and we are not really concerned with what is happening beyond our limited horizon.

That’s a problem for governments. If they are to reduce the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, they need to get people to consider others. The longer this situation lasts, the harder that becomes. It’s likely that you no longer rush to the TV to the government press conferences. You may have seen people on social media saying they are fed up with it all. The chances are you just want it all to be over.

These are the symptoms of fatigue, and some recent studies have shown that people are increasingly unlikely to adhere to the social distancing guidelines because they are just fed up. This is a problem for governments worldwide. As people get more tired and self-focused, that opens up the opportunity for the virus to reassert itself. Political leaders are trying to bolster people by being excited about the potential for vaccines. Yet they are not telling anyone the logistics. In the UK, for instance, the need for social distancing to be removed will not happen until around 42m people have been vaccinated. Even with the NHS working flat out to do that, it would take at least a year to get that level of vaccination. Politicians do not want to admit that because they know that people are already “worn out”. To tell people the truth would just make things worse, with a resurgence of the virus inevitable, they believe.

However, pandemic fatigue is not just a political issue. It’s a business problem too. When people are fed up, when they become self-obsessed in their little bubble of existence, they also become less productive. Just when businesses need people to be more productive to help overcome the economic impacts of the pandemic, people are psychologically incapable of doing what is required. If you are self-employed, you are likely to be less motivated to try new things or work on new projects. A month or two into “lockdown” people were excited about the additional time they had to think up new ideas and to innovate. That’s not happening so much now.

According to the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, the UK is in the worst economic position it has been in for the past 300 years. It may well be correct, but telling people this will have also contributed to “pandemic fatigue”. Many people are thinking things like “we may as well give up now”. Indeed, like me, you may well have seen such thinking exposed on social media.

People saying this were recently boosted when it was announced that the UK retail giant, The Arcadia Group, is almost certainly going to collapse, affecting 13,000 people. It was in trouble before the pandemic struck, which is partly due to the technology-phobic owner of the business, Sir Philip Green. According to the Financial Times, Sir Philip is a “Luddite” who has an old battered Nokia phone, doesn’t send emails much and is opposed to e-commerce. The slowness to adapt to online retail is the real problem for Arcadia, which has been made worse as a result of the pandemic.

However, the tiredness which is arising due to almost a year of working in bubbles means many other businesses will face similar issues in the future. They will not be able to innovate or adopt new ways of working because their employees are just fed up and are merely “ticking over”.

So, it is time to pull up our socks and revise our thinking and revive our businesses. And as you may be suspecting from me, there is a psychological perspective which is crucial if you want your business to succeed in 2022 (once we have all been vaccinated).

The “trick” is to REDUCE your optimism about the future. Psychological studies show that people who are over-optimistic about the future are the ones that end up with problems once the crisis they are facing is over. In other words, if you are too optimistic about the future, your future ends up being less bright than you were expecting, and you become disillusioned.

Instead, you need to temper our optimism for the future. This is known as the “Stockdale Paradox” after the US Navy admiral, James Stockdale. He discovered that service personnel who thought they would be home by Christmas performed worse than those who believed they would not be back with their family for much longer.

So, if you want your business to succeed in the long run, the psychological trick is to ignore the political notion that the vaccines will solve everything by the Spring of 2021. Start thinking this will all be over by Spring 2022 (a year later), and you are more likely to perform better now and be able to innovate for the future as you will have a more realistic level of expectation.

Being too optimistic can make your pandemic fatigue worse.

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