How pandemic flux syndrome is impacting the workplace

by Richenda Vermeulen
February 3, 2022

Pandemic flux syndrome is real. 

It’s not just you. Pandemic flux syndrome is affecting all of us in the workplace, as some employees wrestle with a return to in-person work and others question whether they want to go back to their old lives (and jobs) at all. 

This trend isn’t going away anytime soon. In this post, we’ll dig into how pandemic flux syndrome is impacting teams. In part 2, we’ll share some steps you can take to make your workplace a ‘flux-friendly’ environment.

Pandemic flux syndrome defined

The term was first coined by social psychologist Amy Cuddy and author JillEllyn Riley in an August 2021 editorial for The Washington Post. That summer, the US looked like it was finally on its way out of the pandemic. Covid cases were down. Vaccines were readily available. Then came the delta variant.  

In 2022, it’s the same in Australia, only with a few months’ lag. After years of lockdowns and border closures, restrictions were finally lifted, vaccinations soared… and then came omicron. You know the rest.

Every prospect of a fresh start seems to fizzle. Pandemic flux syndrome, while not a clinical diagnosis, describes the mental and emotional toll of living in a prolonged state of uncertainty. Simply put, our bodies weren’t designed to remain in crisis mode this long. Our coping resources are depleted. 

For many, this triggers one of two responses:

  • Some withdraw or shut down completely. 

  • Others blow things up by making a major life change.

Both impulses are fuelled by a desire for escape. When everything feels out of sorts, we look for safety. Or we try to find something we still have control over.

Flux is the new normal.

The disruption of the past two years  isn’t going anywhere. The post-pandemic world is going to look very different to the one we lived in before March 2020.

That’s something to adapt to, but it’s not something to be afraid of. This is hardly the first big disruption we’ve lived through, after all. Change is a constant in our world. 

Think about the digital revolution of the last 20 years. It’s brought enormous change to our daily lives. Some businesses and not-for-profits struggled to adapt. Some haven’t made it. But many of the changes it brought proved indispensable to pandemic life – from mobile contact tracing to food delivery apps to the much-maligned (but, let’s be honest, absolutely essential) Zoom call.  

One of the biggest changes in our lifetime gave us exactly the tools we needed to cope with the disruption of the last two years.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s been easy – not by a long shot. But one of the first steps to coping with pandemic flux syndrome is resetting our relationship with change. 

How is pandemic flux syndrome affecting your employees?

Maybe your team’s return to the office  was met with less enthusiasm than you expected. Or maybe your team is in an unexplained funk. Pandemic flux may be the culprit. 

Broadly speaking, pandemic fatigue is impacting teams in three ways:

1. Confusion on what normal even looks like anymore

We’ve gone from heavy restrictions and relatively little Covid pre-Christmas, to lots of freedom and Covid everywhere. For two years, we were told the virus was something to avoid at all costs. Now it’s something we’re supposed to live with. It’s all a bit… disorienting.

Is it any wonder employees are so confused? None of us seem sure how to go about normal life – from eating out to visiting the Australian Open to how we work.

Some employees are resuming a kind of normalcy, while others have gone into self-imposed lockdown. Some workplaces are open, while others have shut down again. 

Many employees are understandably fed up with working remotely, while others dread a return to the office. For me personally, I couldn’t imagine another three months working from home. But at the same time, Covid is a reality we can’t just ignore. 

It was important for my team that we come up with a plan that allowed us to reopen – with strict limits on how many hours and how many people can be in the office at once – while giving everyone maximum flexibility to work in ways that work for them. (More on that in part 2 of this series.)

2. Losing that collaborative ‘spark’

TheHarvard Business Review observes how collaboration has taken a hit in many workplaces: ‘Priorities are fuzzy, progress is slow, and social interactions feel somewhat awkward’.

This is not entirely unexpected. Recovery from a traumatic event – especially a global pandemic that just won’t quit – is anything but straightforward. It’s not as simple as ‘picking up where we left off’ before Covid. 

Add to this the complexity of collaborating through a screen – maintaining momentum while part (or all) of your team is working offsite. Some teams have managed the transition well enough, while others miss the sense of connection that comes with face-to-face collaboration. In my case, supplementing a steady barrage of Zoom meetings with some time in the office has been a huge boost to my inspiration and energy.

3. Accelerating the Great Resignation

We’ve already noted how some people cope with pandemic flux syndrome by making major life changes. In some cases, that includes their careers.  This has contributed to the Great Resignation we’ve seen over the last several months.
But as Canadian HR consultant Dr. Helen Ofosu points out, ‘Most people don’t quit their jobs on a whim’. People leaving jobs now were likely wrestling with career satisfaction before the pandemic. The pandemic may have been a catalyst for a change that was long in the making.

Adopting a flux mindset

In her new book Flux, April Rinne argues we can do more than survive constant uncertainty and change. We can thrive in it. But to do so, we have to flip our perspective: to let go of what we can’t control and engage with what is possible. Because in the end, that’s one thing we do have control over: how we choose to see the moment we’re in. 

We can embrace it as an opportunity to decide how we will live in line with our values – because that’s the one thing that doesn’t have to change amid all the flux. 

Next up: how you can build a ‘flux-friendly’ work environment so your team can thrive. If you’d like to chat more about how to cope with pandemic flux syndrome in the workplace,reach out.