Purpose and Empowerment key to overcoming Covid-19 fatigue

19 October 2020 Consultancy.uk 6 min. read

With the Covid-19 crisis into its second wave, and little certainty on when the pandemic can be curbed entirely, organisations and their people are increasingly facing Covid-19 fatigue. Dustin Seale, Managing Partner of Heidrick Consulting in Europe, shares his thought on how leaders can overcome this fatigue, by embracing purpose and empowerment.

In a crisis, our human instincts kick in and we do one of two things: “Every Man for Themself” or “Unify and Fight”. The coronavirus pandemic ignited the latter and more positive instinct for the majority of people and organisations. Most leaders who adopted these actions were able to power through the pandemic’s initial phase.

As we now face the second phase, leaders will need to find creative ways to re energise their organisations and replace fatigue and weariness with a reimagined zealous perseverance. The fact that there is no clear end in sight is something that leaders must take into consideration and navigate accordingly. 

The drive and energy that the initial shock gave organisations has been somewhat short-lived, however. Our mutual challenge was fighting the virus, now the challenge is this: the organisations that were once hubs of virus-fighting energy and enthusiasm are now reporting Covid-19 fatigue and lethargy. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Most of us are good in a sprint, but as they say “this is a marathon, not a sprint”.

Dustin Seale, Managing Partner of Heidrick Consulting EMEA, Heidrick & Struggles

What can be done?

There are things we naturally do to restore our lost physical energy on an individual level. We regain our strength by eating right, drinking less, regularly exercising, sleeping more, taking rest days and other practices such as mindfulness.

When it comes to organisations, solutions lie in employee wellness programmes, recognition for wins and contributions, encouraging mindfulness and reflection and ensuring members of the organisation experience valuable family time and holidays. There are two significant strategies organisations can implement in order to retrieve phase one enthusiasm and reignite their workforce’s energy:

  1. Ensure all activity is fuelled by a clear sense of Purpose. This Purpose must carry meaning for employees far beyond words on a page.
  2. Empower employees to make changes that will improve their own lives and the lives of their customers. Make sure both are done in teams, connecting and working with others to move the business forward, with formal and informal interactions.

‘P’ stands for Purpose

The energy at the beginning of the crisis can indeed be described as “purpose-driven”. However, that was purpose with a small p. This version of purpose may work to fight the immediate enemy but it is not sustainable. If we look to history we will see countless examples of leaders, teams, companies and even dictators who have used this ‘purpose’ to unite and initiate short bursts of energy and achievement. Real Purpose is different.

In 2009, Heidrick Consulting helped a firm that was hit hard by the financial crisis to reevaluate and reinvigorate its leadership approach. Like with the current crisis, this firm mobilised an initial energised response but this was shortly followed by a loss of energy and belief. 

The leadership team then doubled down to all the organisation’s employees to the purpose. The business was led with this purpose as the guiding principle. The result was a re-energised organisation and one that won more work and grew faster than any other time in its history. While the market was still not favourable, there was a belief in the organisation that defied the market trend and grew even whilst others were shrinking.

What did we do?

We focused on defining the Purpose of the organisation. This definition comes from analysing the company’s positive contribution to the world. Once this is recognised, everyone should be helped to connect personally to this Purpose. A standard communications programme is not enough. The Purpose must be embedded through experiences – be they workshops, conversations, meetings, etc. – and must generate positive associative feelings reaching the part of the brain responsible for choice and behavioural change.

The individual must feel connected to the work they do and see its importance within the larger organisation while fulfilling their personal purpose. This is no new idea. Aristotle spoke about it, as did Frankl and others. When we are connected to Purpose, we traverse obstacles differently and the work we do creates energy rather than consumes it.

Empowering employees

The second strategy is to empower the workforce and make change. The pandemic has seen leaders simply working harder and longer. A few months in and they are worn out. Re-energising involves implementing an approach to work that enables people to see things from new angles and in new lights while taking back the control needed to achieve results. It is equally important to do this in teams. We need other people as catalysts for inspiration and for helping to generate energy and meaning. The current lack of teams and sense of connection drains energy.

“Purpose and Empowerment provide organisations and their people a dynamic with which they can reenergise, reignite and persevere.” 

When we work with organisations we engage our team-based Acceleration Lab to encourage this empowerment strategy. We recently worked with a real-estate company and got them to try out our Lab dynamic. With this methodology, employees are faced with hypothetical scenarios that mirror their real-life work problems. In solving these, participants found a new wave of energy that was echoed in the resultant upward trajectory of the company.

“At the start of this process we stared directly in the mirror and saw ourselves doing things the way we normally do, and realised it would not work. This approach unlocked our thinking and has set a new tone and direction for the firm”, the CEO of the company said. Insights born out of team environments generate change and reignite a collective energy for organisations. 

Do all of the above in ways that connect people with people. We are social animals and part of the fatigue being felt today is based on the loss of real connection. Underpinning connection to purpose and growing empowerment, is putting in the mechanisms for both formal and informal interactions that accelerate both of the above. 

Recent studies show that the Oxytocin levels, generated in our posterior lobe, rise in us when in authentic interactions with other people. Oxytocin is critical in the feelings of well-being and optimism and thus reduces fatigue significantly. If you’re not connecting people in authentic and productive interactions, they are spending, not gaining energy. 

Purpose and Empowerment

When we combine these two strategies of Purpose and Empowerment we are creating a link between the present moment and the challenges the future may bring. We are providing organisations with a dynamic with which to reenergise, reignite and persevere. With such strategies we are looking beyond the short-term challenge of the virus and establishing a long-term business strategy, underpinned by sustained behaviour changes.

There is a way out of this period of fatigue. Taking care of employees and prioritising these ideals will establish the mechanism to power you through this period of weariness and beyond this era of pandemic.