By Susan Au Allen: National President & CEO, US Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce Education Foundation (USPAACC)
The vaccines are here. This marks a critical turning point — a year into the pandemic — in the fight against a virulent disease that has wreaked months-long havoc to lives and livelihood.
Millions of Americans have already been vaccinated from COVID-19; millions more are awaiting their turn. This is welcome news that brings renewed optimism.
Our collective jubilation, however, is tempered by caveats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Experts estimate that the United States is still months away from reaching the threshold of herd immunity.
To cut the chain of transmission, at least 70% of the U.S. population — or over 200 million people — would have to recover from the illness and achieve natural immunity or undergo vaccinations. According to CDC, only 7.9% of the U.S. population — or just over 26 million people — have been given the recommended two doses.
This sobering reality is compounded by the arrival of highly contagious variants — increasing exponentially — which could spark new outbreaks and undermine vaccination progress. This does not augur well for the public sentiment that has been aching to return to a semblance of normalcy.
First the Fear, Now the Fatigue
In the early days of the pandemic, as the infection spiked, fear was foremost in everyone’s mind. Few questioned government-imposed lockdowns, restrictions of unfettered movements, enforced social distancing and other health protocols. Public compliance was high.
Today, more than a year later, the public attitude has changed: fear has been supplanted by fatigue. People have become more relaxed due to collective boredom, exhaustion, impatience or a sense of apathy — a phenomenon experts refer to as “pandemic fatigue.”
Uncertainty, a sense of lack of control and limited options fuel anxiety. This leads to profound shifts in social and work behaviors, as well as consumer preferences. Humans — social animals who are naturally in need of constant contact with each other — will keep on seeking out one another.
Signs are everywhere: recent outbreaks have been traced to bars, restaurants and air travel. An exhausted public has begun to disregard health protocols. This trend will continue.
What likely emerges next is a vicious cycle. When the public lets its guard down, health protocols will be broken. This will then trigger more infections. Eventually, this will lead to more restrictions — and pandemic fatigue will worsen.
The Business of Coping
There simply is no available playbook in corporate America and government today that offers guidance on how to effectively handle pandemic fatigue. Psychologists counsel that the art of mitigating pandemic-related fatigue begins with accepting the current reality.
It is also important to accept that the adaptations in how people work these days could become protracted or even permanent. With workflow significantly disrupted, output and morale are at their nadir. Employees have hit the motivational wall. Social calendars are wiped clean. Small talk among office colleagues — including spontaneous gossip sessions next to the water cooler — is replaced by seemingly interminable, back-to-back video calls that ironically lead many to feel more disconnected than ever.
Since the work-from-home set-up began, employees have also noticed that their working hours have been stretched. They struggle to follow a structured work schedule. It is difficult to set and adhere to work-related parameters at home, in part because they worry that they will lose their job or be seen as weak contributors to the team effort. These amorphous work boundaries, plus the associated stress, contribute to the energy drain among the workforce.
In response, companies of every size are bringing out myriad new initiatives from their arsenal to support their employees. A host of activities are offered that focus on connection, care and the well-being of staff — often ranging from tailored wellness programs to virtual happy hours. Managers are clearing their calendars to make themselves available for informal, agenda-free connections. Others are allowing employees to take more time off.
But more needs to be done. Organizations must empower teams, simplify unnecessary bureaucracy and enable a faster decision-making process. Conduct listening tours to take the pulse of employees and assess their needs. Apply innovative, best-practice work-from-home models. Help prioritize available work, put a pause on the introduction of new projects, limit work in progress and allow for respite and recovery.
Individually, employees must slow down. Keep a sense of calm and focus. Stave off ennui by virtually reaching out to a community with shared interests, such as gardening, painting and other hobbies. Take periodic breaks to replenish energy. Try breathing exercises and meditation, go for a stroll, read a book, engage in online shopping or “retail therapy,” etc. Channel fatigue into meaningful and creative endeavors.
Further, limit access to social media and avoid tuning in to negative stories on television that raise stress and anxiety levels. Do not let negativity foster.
The Untrodden Path to the ‘Next Normal’
A sense of loss is at the heart of pandemic fatigue — the loss of control in our daily life, work, business, finances, travel, important events, opportunities and more. On a personal level, it is the loss of connection to our family, friends, peers and community.
Understandably, stress levels remain high and taking their toll. According to Nielsen data, alcohol sales in the U.S. are up 23 percent.
As the U.S. crosses yet another grim milestone with over half a million deaths from COVID-19, the country’s policymakers have the daunting task of trying to deflate the rate of infection. They face a tenuous balancing act: enforcing a range of restrictions while weighing public health-related and economic repercussions.
Compliance wanes as pandemic fatigue spreads. Worse, as more people get vaccinated, many become more complacent and tempted to disregard precautions. Some take their cues from several state leaders who have announced the easing of restrictions, including the lifting of mask mandates and allowing businesses to open at full capacity.
The vaccines are no panacea for this contagion. If the public fails to adhere to minimum public health standards, it will only aggravate the current situation. To avoid reaching the tipping point of yet another coronavirus surge, safety measures must remain and be heeded. It is up to a conscientious public to do its share to ensure that our collective journey through this untrodden path to the “next normal” will be smooth, safe and healthy.
Susan Au Allen came to the United States from Hong Kong on an invitation from the White House in recognition of her volunteer work for people with disabilities. She received her Juris Doctor from the Antioch School of Law and LL.M. in International Law from Georgetown University. During her 17 years with Paul Shearman Allen & Associates of Washington, D.C. and Hong Kong, she became nationally recognized for her work on immigration, international trade and investment. Once an immigrant, she knows the obstacles that one must be overcome to achieve the American Dream, and she has dedicated her life to help entrepreneurs to pursue their Dream — develop, grow and build a successful business.