Pandemic fatigue setting in? You’ve got company

“Oo oo wnt rmf crrem n shhr?

“Huh”

“Crrm n shhhgr”

“Oh. Unh uhn”

“Huh?”

“No js bfflk”

“Huh”

“No just black!”

That last line I enunciated while pulling the mask away from my mouth a little so I could make the coffee pourer in Starbucks understand I drink coffee black and didn’t need room for cream and sugar.

Such is life trying to talk to people with the muffling effects of face masks. It could usher in a new era of superb diction. One of a thousand adjustments we seem to be making. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday ordered all members and staff to wear them. Now they can insult one another and get away with it because no one will be sure what anyone said.

Virginia representative Jennifer Wexton politely admonished her social media followers,
“Wear a damn mask.”

At least the mask is something we do in the presence of other people. Engineers like to remind us that brakes don’t just stop cars. They enable fast driving. Masks don’t just stop germs. They enable people to be in one another’s presence.

But is the telework — more precisely, the isolation of telework — taking a toll on people? You can find hundreds of articles published in the last couple of months attesting to the psychological toll telework has exacted. Fatigue, overwork, insufficient exercise, too much sitting, feelings of being overloaded, tension, stress, difficulty separating work and non-work life. Certainly there’s videoconferencing fatigue, with its tiresome technical glitches. My personal peeve is people who let spinning ceiling fans into the viewing frame.

Scores of Federal Drive guests I’ve interviewed from both government and industry since mid-March have been teleworking. None of them seemed miserable. But guests tend to be managers, leaders, heads of associations — the kind of people with a high degree of engagement with others and, frankly, who can call the shots.

I’ve never liked the term “worker bee” when applied to people. When you watch an ant colony or a beehive, it’s amazing to see all those undifferentiated critters in a big blob do their thing. But I doubt individual ants or bees have self awareness or higher-level consciousness. You can’t treat a workforce like you’re about to harvest honey.

Some agency leaders are taking steps for the care and feeding of their employees’ psyches as this wears on. Case in point: Special Counsel Henry Kerner. He ordered mandatory telework March 16th.

Besides concern for physical health, Kerner told me, “we also worry about the mental health.” He borrowed the Wellness Wednesday idea. “It’s a program, completely voluntary, that involves a guest speaker, we’ve had yoga instructors, we’ve had meditation people.” Even a speaker from the equity and inclusion section of the Bureau of Prisons, who gave people a chance to express their feelings in the unrest that followed the George Floyd killing.

It’s not all heavy duty. “Today we have pets, so people can show their pets, other people can enjoy seeing cats and dogs.” Kerner said. A former dog owner and still a huge dog fan, I can relate to that.

Perhaps more fundamentally, Kerner added, “We try to check in with folks because they don’t have the opportunity to see each other at the office. They’re worried about COVID, they’re worried about their children, they’re worried about their parents a lot of times, they’re worried about their own health.” Kerner calls people personally to check on their well being.

OSC is a small agency, only 133 people, so conceivably Kerner could at some point speak with each one personally.

What about a place like Homeland Security, with its nearly quarter million people? It’s got lots of online resources for employees. They’re part of a larger strategy. I recall an interview with DHS Chief Human Capital Officer Angela Bailey more than a year ago. She described an initiative called Employee and Family Readiness.

At the time DHS offered employees mindfulness training classes, initially for law enforcement families. DHS also offered weekend courses for couples in relationship strengthening, and financial literacy training, especially important in a government funding lapses where people are without pay. Bailey’s thinking was, “federal workers are a microcosm of society,” and deal with the same problems. So why not, in such a large organization, try and deal with the whole person? Bailey reports that after going virtual, usage of these services has risen 300%.

In the best circumstances, people’s work is a great motivator. Year after year, NASA gets the top scores in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Just yesterday morning, NASA launched a rocket containing a new rover, dubbed Perseverance. It’s on its way to Mars. In NASA-speak, everything is nominal. That means good. A launch, essentially, is where years of science, engineering, program management, and money combine to produce magic. The on-air launch commenters, NASA’s communications guy Joshua Santora and launch services guy Mic Wolters, tried to be calm and technical but you could hear the emotion in their voices, the thrill of the blastoff rumble shaking the building.

In the more mundane federal work, we’ve got report after report of how high productivity has remained for agencies during the pandemic. Kerner cited OSC dealing with a record number of cases. To the extent that leadership remembers people not only live to work, they also live to live, they’ll have both better work — and happier people.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Alazar Moges

A genetic mutation prevents Chinese tree shrews from feeling the heat of capsaicin, making them the only other mammal besides humans that enjoys hot foods.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine