I’m reading an increasing number of reports, both research-based and anecdotal stories, about the cognitive cost of Covid-19 and as business leaders, we need to prepare. There are two aspects – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the long-term impact of the virus itself on the brain. Those who work frontline health and safety services, those who have been severely ill and those caring for ill relatives may be traumatized by the uncertainty, the exhaustion, the emotional labor of the trial. Those who have been ill have been scared and isolated, facing their darkest fears alone. There are also now reports emerging of hallucinations and delirium in severe cases of the virus, leading to sustained effects on the brain. Recovered patients are reporting a long tail impact on fatigue, concentration and mood. So how can we help our employees at work? I’m going to explain how to recognize the effects and what to do about them.
How Will This Affect My Staff?
Firstly, we need to translate these scary sounding possibilities into practical, day-to-day effects. Whether the damage is neurological or emotional, both experiences can deplete “Executive Functions.” This is what psychologists call the highly developed thinking skills that sit at the very front of our brains. Executive functions take the longest time to mature – we are usually in our mid 20s before our executive functions fully develop – and are often the first to go, affected by age, illness and injury. Executive functions affect our short-term memory, our ability to think through multiple sequential consequences, to process large amounts of new information, to manage our impulses. When they are compromised, we find it hard to pay attention, organize and plan.
Employees who are affected by Covid-19 may start missing deadlines or taking longer to finish projects. They might be more likely to blurt things out in meetings or find it hard to keep track of the conversation. They might start missing details that they would usually manage or need to be reminded of instructions more than usual. They might take longer than before to get the gist of a new project or tool. They will report stress and anxiety, they may start to lose confidence.
What Can We Do To Recover Performance?
I’ve worked with people who struggle with executive functions for over twenty years, and I can assure you that there are a multitude of tips and strategies you can employ to reduce cognitive load. My social enterprise provides this service to over 3000 individuals each year, who have ADHD, dyslexia, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue and more. Things can get better! These are the most popular strategies for the workplace:
1. Rest, rest and more rest. Overwhelming a cognitively compromised brain will make it worse, not improve fitness. A phased return to work rather than jumping in would be ideal. If not, then balancing the day in terms of quiet/busy periods rather than back to back meetings would be a good step, as well as insisting on breaks. Remember than noisy environments, video calls and conference calls are a massive drain on the brain in any circumstance, try to buffer these where possible.
2. Name it. One of the scariest things about developing executive function weakness is feeling out of control, embarrassed, isolated and afraid. Bring in a psychologist to run an awareness sessions for managers, send out a company email to signpost for support, approach individuals who might be affected and ask if they are okay. Sometimes, just voicing what’s happening and talking through a schedule or a to do list makes all the difference. Your staff need to know that this is a ‘permissible problem’ to ask for help with.
3. Use assistive technology and memory tools. AI assistants, diary management tools, mind mapping and project management software – what your employee used to do in their heads they now have to write or sketch out. There are lots of different ways to do externalize your short-term memory capacity, so I recommend exploring and seeking professional advice if you get stuck. The neurominority community are experts at this! We can help.
You can commission workshops on managing memory drains, working at your best, organizational skills and time management, or bring in a specialist one-to-one coach for people who you are worried about. In these sessions, a facilitator/coach will help generate strategies and get people using tech that is suitable for your business. We’re keeping tabs on the longer-term psychological effects of Covid-19, but we don’t yet know whether cognitive changes are permanent, like they are for neurominorities, or whether they will get better. That’s a pretty scary thought for people who are affected, but by taking positive, proactive steps we can at least buffer our employees from a career derailment at work.