You’ve probably been hearing this term tossed around as of late. It sounds relatable for most of us and it’s easy to assume that pandemic fatigue is just what it sounds like: feeling exhausted by the prolonged overwhelming impact of COVID-19. There’s actually a little more to it than that and understanding the “why” makes it easier to empathize with the struggles some are experiencing.
Research indicates adults make around 35,000 conscious decisions a day on average. Learning this gave me a much deeper appreciation for how much work our brains do and how much mental energy we expend even in a not-super-stressful day. We make our decisions essentially by weighing two things: the potential reward against the cost. As a result of the pandemic we have even more choices to make – for example, the choice to comply with public health guidelines such as wearing masks, physically distancing and abiding by restrictions around “Household Bubbles”; getting a COVID-19 test if we have what could be a symptom of the virus; really stopping to think whether you need to venture to the grocery store when we’re meant to stay at home when possible. Thinking about these extra decisions, one might think, Well sure, those things are bound to add more stress to a person’s life but we also know they’re the right decisions to make to help keep everyone safe… so they should be relatively easy choices to make, and therefore shouldn’t take too much mental exertion. If I’m weighing out the potential gain from wearing a mask at the grocery store (potentially saving lives) and the cost of doing so (very mild inconvenience and/or minor discomfort that resolves quickly once I get back to my vehicle and remove my mask), why would my brain feel exhausted at being faced with that choice? That decision making process shouldn’t be a mentally taxing one, right? Well, yes and no.
For our brains, the formula that drives our engagement and behaviour isn’t simply gauging whether the reward is higher than the cost. Instead, if a task that carries a high “cost” in the form of mental exertion the potential reward is automatically discounted. We humans aren’t great at multitasking, so if I’m mentally engaged in any one thing my brain understands it’s missing out on something else – possibly something it already knows is easier and carries and higher reward. Aside from the mental investment one of the “costs” our brains take into account is lost opportunity. My subconscious logic might be something like, Why would I waste my time with this mentally taxing activity when I could be sitting on the couch watching a funny show on Netflix, which requires very little effort and definitely carries a pretty reward in the form of feeling good – I know, because I’ve done it before. The way our brains see it, it doesn’t make sense to waste our time on high-cost/low-reward tasks when there’s a 100% chance low-cost/moderate-to-high reward tasks are available. We’re therefore a lot less motivated to engage in the former.
Decisions that require lots of contingencies require more mental exertion by nature. For example, going to the grocery store now requires more planning and your brain is likely accounting for scenarios like What if I forget my mask? and How will I address it if another shopper gets less than two metres from me? and What if I contract COVID-19 (and spread it to others) from this grocery trip? More mental exertion is required than a pre-pandemic grocery run… and the reward hasn’t increased. If your energy has been low and you’ve been feeling “blah” or more emotionally volatile than usual… this might be why. If you’ve had a hard time working up the gusto to do things you need to do (like household chores and work) or would normally want to do that now look a bit different (like hobbies or socializing)… this might be why. The cost/reward ratio has changed.
Many workplaces are struggling with employee disengagement right now. Leaders must understand that although their team members are likely rational people who are on board with following public health guidelines and want to do their jobs well, pandemic fatigue may well be posing a barrier to some degree. Tasks that were once simple now require more mental exertion due to more of those little decisions needing to be made along the way (needing to be made most of our waking moments, actually). This inherently detracts from the reward those tasks once carried, meaning employees may not be getting that moment of satisfaction they once got from completing a task to the best of their ability.
It’s a time for leaders to be patient, flexible and empathetic. Remind your team that they’re cared for at work and communicate details about resources available to them, such as the Employee and Family Assistance Program (if you need some pointers for disseminating that information check out last week’s blog). Remember, our present circumstances won’t last forever. When we’re finally able to return to business as usual you want your employees to be able to look back and recognize that they were well supported during this chaotic and challenging period. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t forget to look for it.
Until next week, my friends! Keep safe and take care.
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.