By Maximus International
Dr Kimberley Norris, clinical psychologist, and Associate Professor at the University of Tasmania caught the attention of political and organisational leaders with her research into the ‘third-quarter phenomenon’. Here, Dr Norris shares her views with Maximus on how we have adapted to our rapidly changing environment, and how organisations can best support the mental health of their people throughout the uncertainty and re-entry phase of COVID-19.
Maximus International: What are the takeaways from your research on extreme working conditions and special employee populations across the general public in the wake of the pandemic?
Dr Kimberly Norris: A lot of the work we do in this space is oriented toward what we call extreme and unusual environments – they deviate substantially from the everyday experience of most people and generally don’t promote optimal human functioning. We consistently find that the number one impact to how well people adapt to extreme environments is psychological parameters: how people subjectively experience the objective, physical, social, and technological factors.
Maximus: When it comes to this new, unusual environment, what are you seeing? How have we been adapting to this new way of working?
Dr Norris: There have been a couple of different trajectories for want of a better term. We have the people who have essentially given themselves permission to do what they can do and be okay with that. When they’ve been in an organisational context where they feel safe, supported and essentially where they are trusting in their leaders to look after them – we’ve seen their mental health flourish. This comes back to how pivotal organisational trust is – to the sense that we have that shared experience – “they want the best for us, not just the best from us”.
Another trajectory pertains to people who are essentially throwing themselves headlong into work as a distraction or coping strategy, which sees a massive spike in their productivity. With these individuals, however, their increased work levels, puts them at huge risk of burnout. And sometimes burnout can be slow to ignite. So, they might say, “No, no, I’m fine. I’m excited to get back to work,” and then a couple of weeks, if not months later, they really feel the impact. Individuals on this trajectory are most at risk after things go back to normal.
“The third quarter is that stage… where we see increased irritability, tensions and frustrations.…people are projecting their dissatisfaction onto the organisation because nothing feels in their control.“
– Dr Kimberley Norris
Maximus: What does “going back to normal” look like? And how does the third quarter phenomenon factor in terms of what is to come?
Dr Norris: When people have been isolated, and to a degree confined in their homes, they have almost like a roller-coaster of emotions, and a roller-coaster in terms of their memory, concentration, energy levels and productivity.
The third quarter is that stage where the end is still not quite in sight, but we’ve had enough of what’s going on and have a sense of, “when will this end?”. That’s where we see increased irritability, tensions and frustrations. Perhaps there is more conflict between team members or even externalisation – where your people are projecting their dissatisfaction onto the organisation because nothing feels in their control.
Toward the end of the third quarter, we head into what we call the reunion phase where people are first coming back together. Here, we see increases in anxiety: have I done enough? Are other people going to be judging me? I actually quite like the new normal, the new routine I’ve put in, how can I negotiate this new space? Then, another honeymoon period while everyone’s super polite and conscious of everyone. And then you hit another drop, another low point where reality sets in again. The idea of reverse culture shock is very, very relevant here in an organisational context – we cannot expect our colleagues, our team members to simply pick up where they left off.
Maximus: Managing re-entry and the expected issues you speak to around the reverse culture shock will be paramount. What advice do you have for leaders of organisations when they go through this reunion phase?
Dr Norris: Let people take little steps at a time. Give them a chance to gradually get used to it and see that it’s okay before you lay the big ones on them. From a clinical sphere, we call that systematic desensitisation.
It’s also really important to validate and acknowledge where things have changed. Particularly in instances where the team has lost members – either because of the organisation needing to downsize or because of other people choosing to leave – rather than just pretending it didn’t happen. Validation is key.
“There will be market-driven imperatives to get straight back into it at full intensity, but if you try and do that, the risk of negative outcomes is high…It’s about a staged re-entry.”
– Dr Kimberley Norris
Maximus: We are hearing a lot of fear around “What happens if we go back to the way things were before?” What do you say to leaders who are concerned with re-entry expectations?
Dr Norris: There will be market-driven imperatives to get straight back into it at full intensity, but if you try and do that, the risk of negative outcomes is high. It creates insecurity and instability; that feeling of safety and trust is eroded. It’s about a staged re-entry.
First create the space for people to re-enter, then look at your goals, then slowly ramp up – ensuring people feel allowed to take their time and settle back in, because in the long run, you’re going to get much better outcomes, like organisational loyalty, as a result.
It’s important to recognise that not all of your team members will be at the same place in their adaptation back to the workplace – some people may find the transition easier than others.
People have undergone a large-scale life-changing event and we’re trying to support them through that process. Just because your organisation may be going back to work in an office environment, doesn’t mean the challenge is finished. It’s just a new phase.