Move from Fatigue to Fortitude to Get Through Pandemic, Speaker Advises

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL ( – “Zoom fatigue” isn’t the only phenomenon stressing out many during the pandemic. “Decision fatigue,” “compassion fatigue” and “conflict fatigue” are also taking their toll and causing mental exhaustion.

“We’ve become emotionally worn out as a result of accumulated stress from our personal and work lives or a combination of the two,” explained Jeff Gorter, VP of Crisis Response Clinical Services for R3 Continuum Health.

Often a precursor to workplace burnout, mental fatigue – also called emotional exhaustion, is a state of feeling drained due to accumulated stress. It describes the general state of the population during much of the pandemic.

The good news, according to Gorter is that we’re now starting to reemerge from the pandemic. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said, “but there are signs we are moving forward in many ways.”

Organizations can use certain strategies to set their employees on a positive path forward.

Where We’ve Been

The stress of the last 20 months can be categorized into several types of “fatigue.”

Decision fatigue. “We’ve had to make thousands of decisions in the context of great uncertainty,” Gorter said. Business leaders have found themselves having to come up with unique responses and new ways of addressing situations. “There is a fatigue, a tiredness that comes from constantly having to make it up on the fly … that causes fatigue.”

Virtual environment fatigue. While Zoom and Webex calls and meetings have helped businesses plod through the pandemic, it requires a different kind of energy. “It is so much more draining to try and be present, connected, to really engage via a virtual platform,” Gorter said. “It takes more energy and leaves a lot of people fatigued at the end of a day of nonstop virtual meetings.”

Compassion fatigue, which refers to the emptiness we may experience as we reach out and help others, or hear of more tragic incidents.

Conflict fatigue. “This is a defining characteristic of the past 20 months,” Gorger said. “There has been a sense of tension, of being at odds, of – in some circumstances – lashing out verbally, physically.”

Cumulative fatigue includes all the other types of fatigue together. “That sense of mental fatigue, emotional exhaustion, when it seems as if things are draining my energy in almost every arena of life,” Gorter said. “It’s something so many of us have to come to recognize, that we are simply tired, tired of conflict all the time.”

Much of the experiences we’ve had are normal reactions to crises, which don’t vary much from one event to another. Researchers from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration have plotted the general trajectory of phases people experience during a mass crisis.

It starts with the impact – when the crisis strikes. The World Health Organization’s declaration of a “pandemic” in 2020 would qualify. That’s typically following by an emotional reaction, or the “heroic phase,” when people rise to the occasion. “Like healthcare workers and first responders” did early in the pandemic, Gorter explained. That leads to a “honeymoon phase,” when people reach a point of feeling that things are kind of OK. But it doesn’t last long.

“It’s followed by a period of disillusionment; we’re sick and tired of it,” Gorter said. “That sense of disillusionment is common, it occurs after every mass event.”

The disillusionment period lasts longer than the other phases, often extending to, or past, the anniversary of the impact.

“Inevitably there’s a period of reconstruction, where we are beginning to say, ‘OK, we know what we are up against,’” Gorter said. “Our adaptive capacity, our ability to make decisions is moving us forward, however slowly … I submit that’s where we are right now, in that process of reconstruction, reintegration.”

The Present and Future

The lessons learned during the pandemic can help move organizations forward, Gorter said. It is, he says, an opportunity.

“We have more power, ability to chart our course,” Gorter said. Those most effective use what he calls post-traumatic growth going forward.

“The idea of post traumatic stress disorder, is when faced with overwhelming stress there can be a very negative reaction to that,” Gorter said. “But post-traumatic growth is also true. It’s long been studied; that positive change experienced by someone as a result of struggling with highly challenging or stressful life circumstances; positive change as a result of the crisis one has faced.”

Post-traumatic growth acknowledges and validates the pain one has suffered but also affirms the efforts to survive and cope.

Gorter cited a study of frontline healthcare workers that demonstrated how the pandemic has helped them draw meaning from the challenges they have faced. While they cited multiple distressing events, they also responded to questions about positive changes they have identified during the pandemic.

For example, they noted a growth in appreciation and recognition of the value of their work in a different way; valuing the relationships with their families and friends, coworkers and seeing how the work they do has great value to others; acknowledging personal strengths and realizing they were able to do more than they thought capable; realizing new possibilities, by having to come up with creative ways to get work done, stay connected, and protect loved ones.

“Those going through distress also were experiencing moments of positivity,” Gorter said. “Those who reported the highest levels of distress also reported the highest levels of post-traumatic growth.”

It boils down to what Gorter calls, fortitude. “It’s the perfect word for this current moment we find ourselves in,” he said, “courage and growth in the face of pain or adversity; that dogged determination to get through it, endure.”

Gorter outlined several ways business leaders can facilitate fortitude.

  • Choose a new perspective. Recognizing what someone has learned about himself or his company can help him appreciate the steps he’s had to take to adapt and changes he’s had to make.
  • Reengage with controlling emotions. If anger, anxiety or fear has become the “go to” move, or someone is focused on “worst case scenario,” change that thinking and engage in intentional self care.
  • Own your stuff. Gorter says it’s important to grieve what you’ve lost in order to move on. In addition to personal losses, that may also include face-to-face meetings with coworkers or customers, or attending in-person conferences. “Those may seem like little things but those are micro losses and we have to allow ourselves to grieve those things and recognize we’ve all lost things.”
  • Own your narrative. Take what you’ve learned to write your own next chapter.
  • Realize “it ain’t all about you.” For leaders, that often means expressing gratitude and appreciation for employees. “Leverage what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown, the wisdom you’ve gained and how you can leverage this to help others, help your team be better, stronger and more productive.”