I read a growing number of reports, both research-based and anecdotal, on 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 working in frontline health and safety services, those who have been seriously ill, and those caring for ill loved ones can be traumatized by the uncertainty, exhaustion, and emotional work of the trial. Those who were ill were frightened and isolated, facing their darkest fears alone. There are also reports of hallucinations and delusions in severe cases of the virus, causing lasting effects on the brain. Cured patients report a long tail impact on fatigue, focus and mood. So how can we help our employees at work? I will explain how to recognize the effects and what to do about them.
How will this affect my staff?
First, we need to translate these frightening sound possibilities into practical everyday 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 lie at the front of our brains. Executive functions take the longest time to mature – we are usually in our mid-twenties before our executive functions fully develop – and are often the first to disappear, affected by age, disease 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 difficult to pay attention, organize and plan.
Employees who are affected by Covid-19 may start to miss deadlines or take longer to complete projects. They might be more likely to blurt out things in meetings or have a hard time following the conversation. They may start to miss details they would usually handle or need to be reminded of instructions more than usual. It may take longer than before to understand the basics of a new project or tool. They will report stress and anxiety, they might start to lose confidence in themselves.
What can we do to recover the performance?
I have worked with people struggling with executive function for over twenty years and can assure you that there are tons of tips and strategies you can use to reduce cognitive load. My social enterprise provides this service to over 3,000 people each year, who suffer from ADHD, dyslexia, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue and more. Things can get better! Here are the most popular strategies for the workplace:
1. Rest, rest and even more rest. Overwhelming a cognitively weakened brain will make it worse and not improve fitness. A gradual return to work rather than getting started would be ideal. Otherwise, balancing the day in terms of quiet / busy times rather than back-to-back meetings would be a good step, while emphasizing breaks. Remember that noisy environments, video calls, and conference calls are a massive load on the brain under all circumstances, try to buffer them where possible.
2. Name it. One of the scariest things about developing executive weakness is feeling out of control, embarrassed, isolated, and scared. Bring in a psychologist to organize awareness sessions for managers, email the company to indicate support, approach people who may be affected and ask if they are okay. Sometimes just expressing what’s going on and talking about a schedule or to-do list makes all the difference. Your staff should know that this is a “qualifying problem” for which to seek help.
3. Use assistive technology and memory tools. AI assistants, calendar management tools, concept mapping and project management software – what your employee was doing in his head, now he has to write or sketch it. There are plenty of ways to outsource your short-term memory capacity, so I recommend you explore and seek professional advice if you get stuck. The neurominorities community is an expert in this area! We can help.
You can order workshops on managing memory loss, doing your best job, organizational skills and time management, or bringing in a specialized one-on-one coach for those who worry you. During these sessions, a facilitator / coach will help generate strategies and get people to use technology that is right for your business. We’re keeping an eye out for the longer-term psychological effects of Covid-19, but we don’t yet know if the cognitive changes are permanent, as they are with neurominorities, or if they will improve. It’s a pretty scary thought for those affected, but by taking positive and proactive steps we can at least protect our employees from a career derailment on the job.