We’ve all heard talk of the “new normal,” but keynoter John Sumser suggested that where we are now is not new, normal or sustainable. Using a mental health model to illustrate psychological reactions to disasters (e.g., a global pandemic), Sumser said we’ve been operating in the “heroic response” phase where employees are energized and working hard to prepare for post-disaster. The result is high engagement scores, with some interpreting this as proof of the benefits of remote working.
Sumser countered that we’re in a “honeymoon” period and about to hit a “wall of disillusionment,” signaled by a growing sense of burnout. This time of disillusionment will be long and followed by a period of grief, mourning what we’ve lost. The result: HR will face new disability, health and safety issues, and the old rules won’t make sense. Expect a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty—with no clear answers (see next item on operational ethics). Sumser believes COVID-19 will return the responsibility of employee safety to the role of HR, with an emphasis on emotional and mental safety—both of which have been compromised by the remote nature of work. Once safety is addressed, HR can focus on individual and organization health and development.
New HR technologies will support a safe return to work, e.g., tools to enforce social distancing, contact tracing, touchless tools (timeclocks, proximity security devices) and more. Further, an array of new tools is under development to support organizational health. Our team identified many great takeaways from Sumser’s presentation, but one that keeps coming back to mind is his comment about the “growing sense of burnout.” In a presentation on employee resilience, Marcus Buckingham noted the lack of industry research on burnout. If Sumser is correct about what’s to come, we can expect a renewed focus on technology to address burnout.