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Pandemic Fatigue: Leading Teams Through

Posted 11 August 2021
by Clare Davy

2020 was a year like no other, and we are still feeling the effects. A global pandemic, economic crisis and widespread social unrest layered on top of large amounts of change in our societies. This was layered on top of technology innovation, workforce automation and business models changing.

Pandemic fatigue is not post-COVID-fatigue that references fatigue that can happen for people who have experienced the virus. Rather, pandemic fatigue refers to feelings we associate with general fatigue, feeling overwhelmed, anxious, lonely, and for many, a decreased sense of optimism. Collectively, we have tried to remain positive. However, the relentlessness of the change and uncertainty has eroded this sense of optimism.

These experiences are well beyond just anecdotal, with 75% of employees in the USA and 33% of employees in the Asia Pacific reporting pandemic fatigue. The number of people who rate their mental health as “very poor” is three times higher than before the COVID crisis, and it is expected that mental health issues will continue to rise (McKinsey, 2020).

As a leader, how can you assist team members experiencing or feeling the symptoms of pandemic fatigue?

Identifying Pandemic Fatigue

The types of things you might hear from someone suffering pandemic fatigue are:

“I am feeling really anxious,” “I am feeling overwhelmed and lonely,” “I have lost my sense of purpose for life,” “I am finding it hard to be optimistic about much in life.”

You might also notice physical symptoms for people such as exhaustion, headaches, light-headedness, and irritability.

So, what can you do about it?

Strategies to Manage Pandemic Fatigue

  1. As a leader, send messages of “bounded optimism” (McKinsey, 2020) - displaying hope, inspiration and optimism that is tempered by the reality of the environment in your location. For example, bounded optimism cautions us to think that once everyone has a vaccine, things will return to normal, or not to say things such as “don’t worry soon it will be normal again”.
  2. Help your people focus on the good things in their lives and what they do, how they contribute to the organisation and give them a sense of hope for the future. Focus on working with your team towards acceptance of where we find ourselves.
  3. Show compassion and empathy. Human-centred leadership has been at the centre of much leadership study in recent years. Understand that people react differently to change, and individuals’ circumstances are unique, so listen and show you care.
  4. Listen carefully for signs of extreme stress and exhaustion and act. If team members show signs of pandemic fatigue, remind them that they have access to wellbeing support through the EAP provider. Most importantly, listen to what they have to say and act on any information they might give you around this exhaustion. Some of the reported reasons include the lack of boundary between work and home, worry about job security, lack of connection to the team and the leader without face-to-face contact.
  5. Run a quickfire listening session with the team. If you are together face to face, get in a room with post-it notes or get online together and get the team to call out all the things that are worrying them and talk through the ones we can solve.
  6. Focus on wellbeing and self-care.
    • Ensure you take regular breaks throughout the day and prioritise sleep and wellbeing.
    • Check out these self-care activity ideas.
    • Try out guided meditations.

Finally, if there was just one thing you can do as a leader, it is role model. Role model empathy, role model self-care. They always tell us on an aeroplane, if the oxygen masks drop from above, put your oxygen mask on first – so remember, prioritise your self-care!


McKinsey & Company. (2020). Overcoming pandemic fatigue: How to reenergize organizations for the long run. Retrieved from McKinsey.com: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/ov...

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