The Great Resignation is overdone

Our collective challenge is the Great Cognitive Slowdown. Here’s how companies can train middle managers to address “Presenteeism”.
The Great Resignation is overdone
Carin Isabel-Knoop & Bahia El Oddi

First posted on by Bahia El Oddi and Carin-Isabel Knoop on Human Sustainability Inside Out.

Covid is endemic, as are its wounds to our psyche. The “Great Resignation” will pale compared to the collective cognitive slowdown that the pandemic has caused and will continue to cause at home and at work.

60% of managers do not want to stay in management.

Our companies and capitalist societies are hooked on growth, performance, and productivity.

We will need to wean ourselves off, because — if we believe the statistics about mental health impairment and insomnia — our collective operating capacity and resilience to stress have shrunk.

This bad news can only be tolerated if we see it as a chance to make management better and fundamentally rethink the extent to which we value human sustainability at work.

Management in the pandemic joined the ranks of the caring professions — with attendant burnout rates. In May 2020, only 9% of Western non-managers expressed an interest in being managers, with about 80% of them saying they have found the job harder than it was a few years ago, and 60% of managers did not want to stay in management.

The core functions of managing will change from focusing on what employees are doing and when, to how they are doing their work and how they are doing as individuals.

We can foresee a lowering of expectations for productivity, instead of pushing for more efficiency.

Such a transition requires that organizations invest in deepening collective and especially managerial knowledge of how humans operate, deal with stress, and connect — the basics of brain science.

In spring 2020, managers were thrown into the role of emotional emergency responders without training. Today we know more. So let’s review what we have learned and how we can do better.


Anxious, distracted, and depressed workers are essentially partially absent at work.

The result is called presenteeism: the act of coming to work but not being fully productive — staying longer than needed or working while sick. We do so for a whole host of reasons: our inability to perform tasks in the time allotted to them; our concern about letting the team down or fear for our job security; and because of management and peer pressures. When we do so, we make more mistakes than usual, look exhausted, show up late, and produce lower-quality work.

In 2021, about 80% of UK employees reported that there is presenteeism in their workplace.

Health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, enable people to come to work or log on but prevent them from working at 100% level. Given that half of US workers are now reporting that they are anxious or depressed, more of us are showing up sick at work. Others are sick or taking care of sick ones, experiencing long Covid and so-called “brain fog” from the illness or vaccine. Omicron symptoms may be less drastic, but the stress of the illness and caregiving related to it is high.

As a result, according to 2021 Gallup’s report on the State of the Global Workplace, workers’ daily stress reached a record high, increasing from 38% in 2019 to 43% in 2020 (57% in the U.S. and Canada).

Poorly managed stress leads to burnout. In fact, the World Health Organization defines burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Stress affects our sleep — and poor sleep impairs our ability to manage stress. Early in the pandemic, the National Institutes of Health highlighted a study that “revealed very high rates of clinically significant insomnia” along with more acute stress, anxiety, and depression. Some of this is driven by our addiction to the omnipresent mobile phone, so heart-breakingly described in this short film, for which its 20-year old Egyptian producer won the award for the best short film at Venice Film Festival.

An increase in substance use, through legalization or as a means to deal with the ache of Covid, does not help.

A recent meta-study of cannabis intoxication show that it leads to small to moderate cognitive impairments (not just when intoxicated) in areas including making decisions, suppressing inappropriate responses, learning through reading and listening, remembering what one reads or hears, and affecting the time needed to complete a mental task.

These issues are common across various mental health issues, as we summarize in the chart below.

Chart showing symptoms of cognitive stress and impairment and potential diagnoses — shows overlap around irritability, low interest and difficulties taking decisions
Compiled by authors.

What have we learned?

The next generation of workers — the young people currently suffering from pandemic lockdowns — will be totally different from their predecessors. The pandemic has changed the shape of global happiness​. The old have become happier and the young more miserable.

K-12 student mental health needs soared with the pandemic. Eating disorders have increased dramatically. The next generation coming into college will suffer from greater levels of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Current college students, even though they are disproportionately vaccinated and not a high-risk group, have been stuck at home.

The top factor that millennials and Generation Z'ers now look for in an employer, Gallup reported, was that “the organization cares about employees’ wellbeing.” It is within the top three across the workforce.

Many in Generation Alpha started life as “bunker babies,” and concern for them will remain a burden on parents for decades. This article in National Geographic sets the scene for kids whose first word is “mask”:

Many parents have been anxious about their kids missing out on normal life experiences, languishing in front of screens, growing up in a socially distanced world. They worry about the effects of isolation, disruption, loss of loved ones, economic pressure, and collective trauma on their children during critical early development, says Amy Learmonth, who studies cognitive development at William Paterson University. “I don’t think there are any parents of under-fives who are not still incredibly stressed,” Learmonth says.

Business schools and business programs did an inferior job of preparing management for a crisis such as Covid.

First, most business lectures and case discussions still assume that the individuals making decisions are perfectly healthy and in balance — as are those they manage. This has never been a reality. Case studies, in particular, have tended to portray protagonists as robotic. Our entire school system failed us.

We get sex education in school, but no brain education.

We take care of our cars, read instruction manuals to coffee machines, but don’t bother to do that for our brains.

Second, students don’t get enough exposure to employment law. As we warned last September, some mental health conditions are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and expose companies to potential lawsuits if the situation is poorly handled.

Radicalization adds to stress and impairs our ability to think creatively and expansively. In 2021, 40% of Americans identified politics as a significant source of stress, and a small percentage reported contemplating suicide.

A recent set of ophthalmology papers suggest that being inside and on screens might have contributed to more kids developing short-sightedness during the pandemic. As kids were becoming physically myopic, adults became cognitively myopic.

Myopia (nearsightedness) narrows perceptions and makes it harder, literally and figuratively, to see the big picture. We focus on what is closest — as in, work from home, our family, our neighbors, our communities — and what we recognize, like those with our own political and social views.

Myopic individuals can’t see into the “distance”; what effect our actions will have in the future. We can see what is right in front of us, but not what is coming down the road, like driving without glasses on.

Self-care seminars and workshops don’t really work if managers don’t change at work. There could be countless training sessions on recognizing the signs and consequences of burnout, however if there are no plans to address these issues when they occur, these sessions are only bandaid solutions that make corporations feel better without healing any wounds.

It doesn’t matter that employees attend mental health workshops if it’s not followed through in the strategy of the leadership team.

Most mental health apps don’t have a scientific basis, and raise significant privacy issues for companies and employees. Many of the well-being and mental health apps that companies have invested in are collecting data that should worry risk and compliance officers, as well as employees. There are no universal standards for “emotional data.” In addition, the churn is very high — most users stay on for just a few weeks.

The effect of taking time off fades rapidly. Leaves, well-being days, corporate-wide vacation closures, and bereavement leaves are all good. We all need time to heal, care, and mourn those we have lost, including unborn children and dear friends.

For instance, the New York Times reported that a tech company CEO rolled out a policy called “Operation Chillax.” Employees had to take a week off. Other leaders have encouraged people to take vacation postponed by the lockdown of Covid. Vacation leads to modest decreases in exhaustion and health complaints, which vanish within two to four weeks after resuming work, according to a study published in the Journal of Occupational Health.

Time away can’t prevent burnout, because chronic stressors are still present in the workplace.

If those don’t change, getting away from them is not a solution. Once the break is off, they’ll start back again. It is a vicious workplace circle.

What should we do?

Accept that management has become a caring profession that requires different attitudes and skills.

We will not solve for mental health at work if we don’t focus on the “at work” part — this means rethinking the role of middle managers. They are the pillars of corporate culture and performance and have the most important direct impact on employee well-being.

Leaders’ emotional states can either help employees flourish at work or the opposite, burn them out.

Investing in training middle managers on the impact of work on mental health and brain functions, and educating them about benefits, is critical to building a culture of well-being and helping employees to overcome mental health challenges at work. Because, only if they are trained can they be held accountable for their impact on their teams.

Once they can be held accountable, the company can better appreciate which additional interventions and benefits will make an impact on employees’ lives. If not, too much depends on the nature and skill of the individual manager, leaving some employees vulnerable, and leading to poor return in benefit investments.

Building a common language and knowledge base around mental health among managers is imperative to being able to measure if and how mental health benefits are working and for whom.

Middle management must be trained on how to manage a cognitively affected workforce. This means effectively sharing information on advances in neuroscience and brain health, as well as known approaches to helping people manage trauma and work through grief.

Management need to understand the legal and compliance framework within which to help employees regarding data privacy, accommodations, and HIPAA. They should also explore creative activities (such as arts and music) to rebuild social nets, improve workplace well-being, strengthen belonging, nurture empathy and inclusion, and ignite innovation.

Teach managers to minimize unproductive stress instead of teaching them how to manage it. This can be done via programming. For example, Harvard provides a program to train Mental Health Leadership Champions, taught by faculty from the Harvard School of Public Health, the GlobalMentalHealth@Harvard Initiative, and experts from around the world. Companies can also investigate other providers of neuromanagement resources.

Encourage managers to learn more about brain science. The pandemic opened up a great deal of content in this space, ranging from Stanford neuro-ophthalmologist Andrew Huberman’s show on brain science, sleep, neurotransmitters, and trauma, to psychiatrist and author Daniel Amen’s work on The End of Mental Illness.

Completely rethink the centrality of employee well-being

In This time it’s personal: Shaping the ‘new possible’ through employee experience, McKinsey suggests that companies develop employee personas (akin to the customer personas that were very popular in the heyday of customer-centricity).

This will help companies define “moments that matter,” what we described as “inflection points” in our book on Compassionate Management in the Modern Workplace in a chapter that encouraged management to “Stress About Stressors: What Are Key Inflection Points?

Source: This time it’s personal: Shaping the ‘new possible’ through employee experience; McKinsey & Company, September 30, 2021.

However, the employee personas can be problematic if they become stereotypes. A benefit fund that enables employees to design their support architecture seems to hold greater potential for true customization and better ROI for companies. What an employee needs when will evolve with their experience, what is going on with their loved ones and in their communities.

Think of your team members and colleagues as if they were freelancers. When we contract out work, we think clearly about what is to be done, by whom, under which conditions, and with which tool.

Improper specs and unclear instructions will lead to poor outcomes.

Companies that use freelance workers gain practice in core tasks that actually lower stress at work according to the World Health Organization: clear tasks at the right skill level that the individual can perform when it suits her/him best at an appropriate remuneration — with the ability to walk away and find a better client if mishandled.

(Re)meet your colleagues, employees, and business partners. Because the pandemic has us out of sync, out of balance, and out of sorts, we need to be willing to share who we are now, how we work, and how much pressure we can tolerate.

We must take the time to understand how others have been changed by the pandemic experience, too. What worked for them before may no longer; the same level of stress and responsibility may now be too much.

To alleviate stress, be more explicit about what can be done and changed (with lots of hard work) and what can’t. If top leaders communicate more clearly what is within and beyond the control of their middle management teams, these will feel more supported and appreciated. Covid times call for clear and transparent communication. Being delegated projects with poor visibility adds unnecessary stress to the already heavy workload of middle managers managing up and down.

Similarly, focus on what is necessary, versus what has always been done. Many US colleges and universities during the pandemic in the US dropped standardized testing requirements — and some will continue doing so. The Los Angeles School district has dropped advanced math requirements, because the district claimed it hurt students of color’s potential to do well in school. Similarly, companies have been taking a look at assumptions around job credentials and expectations for promotions.

A top finance manager reported that after two colleagues went half-time to avoid burnout, she transformed how the team operates. Explicit growth targets are gone. Deadlines are more flexible. Finally, the work is now more project- than team-based. “While this enables people to contribute the best they can when they can,” she said, “teamwork and team cohesion suffer.”

Finally, provide safe spaces for resting and thinking. Most of us can’t process information at the speed we did before Covid. Distracted workers need longer to regain focus.

Getting work done and being asked to do your deep work are two very different activities.

Most of the time, there’s only time allocated to the former. Constantly showing that we are productive is exhausting. Weekly updates are better than random “check-ins.”

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash

The end of the workplace as we know it

In 1990, Fortune Magazine headlined the end of the workplace as we know it. We might be there now. There have always been mental health issues at work — we pretended not to see them. Now that they are in the majority, we can’t ignore them and we need to change work for all.

We will need to slow down and accept the Covid impact — in doing so, we might start building organizations that really do promote human sustainability, and not just said they do.