Navigating the Fourth Wave of the Pandemic: Questions Employers Must Address
#WF46 How should Employers Respond to Mental Illness, Economic Injury, and, Burnout?
In the wake of the pandemic's devastating impact on the world, we must now confront the lasting repercussions it has left on the workforce. The first three waves of the pandemic brought forth immediate mortality and overwhelming strain on healthcare systems. Sadly, this includes over 100,000 health care professionals who died caring for the sick. However, for those responsible for designing work and employment, it is the fourth wave that demands our attention now. How should employers respond to the longer-term impact of psychic trauma, mental illness, economic injury, and burnout?
The Last Wave of the Pandemic
The chart at the top of this article caught my eye. It is from Dr. Victor Tseng MD, a Pulmonologist from Atlanta. It was posted in March 2020 as an early warning to prepare for the expected longer-term collateral damage of Covid19 given previous pandemics. The chart depicts the potential health impacts of the pandemic over the short, medium and long term.
The First Three Waves
The impact of the first wave of Covid19 between in 2020, and 2021 includes nearly 6 million reported deaths worldwide. It is estimated that over 18 million died as measured by excess mortality over that period.
So far, so devastating.
In Wave 2 and 3, the impact on urgent non-Covid conditions, and chronic conditions surged. A record 7.5 million people are on NHS (UK Health Service) waiting lists to start routine hospital treatment.
(Thanks to Dr Richard Claydon for sharing the graph and prompt for discussion.)
Psychic Trauma, Mental Illness, Economic Injury, Burnout
The backdrop to each of these waves is a fourth wave highlighting the psychological trauma and economic injury caused within the broader population.
It is the 4th Wave which resonates with me now -“Psychic Trauma, Mental Illness, Economic Injury, Burnout”.
The implication from the graph is that the 4th wave will potentially have a greater health impact than the 1st three waves and over a longer period.
I can pull out evidence to support the arguments for the waves and their impact but will leave that to the epidemiologists. We will have a slightly better idea when the data is analysed over the next 20 years, and then debated for the next 20.
For those responsible for leading organisations decisions need to be made now.
From a Workforce perspective we know that millions are not working due to ill health. For example in the UK, there has been a doubling of the number of young people not working due to ill health over a decade. (Source Resolution Foundation).
In the chart below, there are 2.5 million working-age people with long-term illnesses who are economically inactive, which is a UK record.
Back to the UK Health service as an example, workforce challenges include 112,500 NHS vacancies in May. The overall sickness absence rate was 5.6% in 2022, which was a higher rate than during the height of the Covid pandemic. This is on top of the impact of industrial action by important sectors of staff.
These workforce challenges will be familiar to many other industries around the World. None are easy to solve. Employers and those leading organisations need to make smart decisions based on the best available evidence available today.
Designing more flexible hybrid work systems (the where of work) might be part of the solution, but we also need to focus on the why, how, and who of work too. Giving staff extra days of vacation, or 24x7 helplines might mitigate in the short-term, but more radical solutions for work will be needed.
Asking a set of difficult questions can be a starting point for leadership teams.
Ten Workforce-Related Questions For Now
Here are some Workforce-related questions related to the longer-term impact of the pandemic:-
How do we design organisations that are more adaptable, resilient, and robust?
As Work Designers, what have we learned in the last three years specifically to create more productive and safe work environments?
What measures are being taken by employers to support the health and well-being of the workforce during these challenging times, and what is the evidence that they work?
What are the main challenges employers face in preventing employee burnout and what resources or support systems can be established to address these issues?
What are the long-term societal implications of a workforce affected by ill health?
What are the opportunities for using technology to solve workforce challenges?
What policy recommendations would you make to governments to support the workforce?
Do the proposed workforce interventions impact particular groups in different ways?
What contingency plans can employers develop to ensure business continuity, employee safety, and effective workforce management during any future disruptions?
What initiatives are being undertaken to reintegrate the number of young people not working due to ill health into the workforce?
Whether we are in the fourth extended wave of a pandemic is not the important point here.
Right now we need to rethink work in the context of economic and workforce changes.
Addressing some of the questions highlighted will be crucial in shaping a healthier and more resilient work environment for everyone. At the very least they can start the important discussions.
Comments are open for this article, please share any thoughts and examples.
Look after yourselves.