Focus, Productivity and Other Casualties of the Pandemic

Building resilience and managing our stress can help us get them back.

Guido Mieth / Getty Images
Guido Mieth / Getty Images

As companies look ahead to re-entry, everyone is thinking about the physical part. We’re figuring out masks, social distancing in an office setting, elevator protocols. We’re exploring features of the “pandemic proof” office, from the return of the cubicle to plexiglass to the advent of body temperature readings. 

That’s all enormously important. But it’s equally important to help employees manage their stress, anxiety and fear as they return to the office — not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it will fundamentally affect our ability to be focused, productive and successful as individuals and teams.

Remember what it feels like to be focused and productive? Has it been a while? If so, you’re not alone. Google searches for “how to get your brain to focus” have increased 300% since February. Ninety-six percent of companies now say their productivity has been affected. And according to a Thrive Global survey, over 75% of employees feel overwhelmed and significantly less productive as a result of working from home and pandemic-related distractions. The fact that many of us are working longer but feeling less able to get things done only adds to the frustration.

But our inability to focus during the pandemic isn’t because we’re slacking off. It’s the way our brains are wired. Amy Arnsten, a neuroscience professor at Yale, has done extensive work on the brain’s response to stress. And during this time of ongoing stress and uncertainty, our brain’s prefrontal cortex — which helps us focus, think critically and make decisions — actually shuts down to make way for the more reactive, impulsive parts that protect us in times of danger, she says

If our brain is like a battery, then right now we are, in effect, collectively operating at something less than full power. And we are seeing this reflected in behaviors and decisions, from regressing to unhealthy habits and addictive behaviors in terms of eating or drinking to, more alarmingly, a rise in domestic violence.

These trends and the data behind them highlight the importance of going beyond physical considerations to prioritize stress management and mental resilience. They show that any re-entry plan needs to address the human element. We’ve been saying for years, at conferences and in think pieces, that we need to address the human element at work, but now it’s gone from being an abstract ambition to an urgent necessity. In fact, we can get everything else right — masks, hand sanitizers, social distancing, elevator protocols, redesigned office plans, everything — but if we don’t address how the stress and uncertainties of the new and next normal affect us as people, it’s going to affect not just our health and productivity but the health of our businesses, too. Because until we give people the tools and support to build mental resilience, the ongoing stress of the pandemic will affect productivity, which in turn will affect the bottom line. According to one recent study, American companies have seen a 7.2% decrease in productivity since in-office work declined. As for how this decrease will affect a company’s overall performance, business leaders can do the math.

“We all know as long as there’s no vaccine, this is not under control,” says Arnsten, the Yale neuroscientist. “And the fact that it’s invisible makes that sense of lack of control even more pronounced.” That’s why it’s so essential, as we approach the re-entry, to focus on what we can control. That means practicing wellness as science-based, rigorous and data-driven, and leaving behind the idea of wellness programs as warm and fuzzy, check-the-box H.R. benefits. 

We can’t change the way our brains are wired. But we can build new habits by applying lessons we’ve learned during this crisis. And when the time comes to go back to the office — at least part-time — we can not only feel safe but know we will be bringing our best, most focused, most productive selves to the challenges of a world vastly different from the one we’ve known.

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