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Can’t We All Just Get Back To Normal Now?

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That's the question nearly every employer is asking—but the answer is not so simple.

In a period marked by never-ending challenges for employers, there is a little bit of good news. The Great Resignation may have peaked. Resignations are leveling off at just below 3% monthly, and it’s clear that most American workers are less inclined to throw in the towel and quit their jobs. We’re also observing that labor participation is up. The labor shortage that’s burdened employers for the past 18 months is becoming a less painful problem.

These cautiously optimistic trends have led many executives to ask one very simple question: Can we please go back to normal now?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. But like everything complicated, there’s a wonderful opportunity for those creative and bold enough to seize it.  Let’s explore it.

1. Can employers start bringing back pre-pandemic approaches without losing employees?

What’s driving executives to long for the past? The theory is that because economic headwinds are growing and inflation is tightening employees’ pocket books, employees are going to stay put – we are already seeing the evidence of that in plateauing resignations and slowing labor shortages in some industries. Indeed, by a purely economic analysis, a weakening economy should shift leverage in favor of employers. (And here, it’s understandable for executives to take a deep breath before reading on and sigh, “finally…;” it’s alright – we’ve all had a few rough years!)

The big question is, do these changes mark a return to the pre-pandemic days?  For example, will the recent increase in union enthusiasm and participation wane? Will wages level off? Will recruiting and retention incentives become less necessary?

Possibly, yes. An economic slowdown means that employees will have fewer options. Therefore, less investment in employees (leveling wages, decreased incentives, etc.) may not lead to a meaningful increase in turnover.

But as with all things these days, it’s not that easy!

Focusing on pure economics is a mistake. The pandemic taught us multi-faceted problems demand multi-disciplinary solutions. From the perspective of organizational psychology, reduced investment in employees may benefit the bottom line in the short term without causing increased turnover. But make no mistake, these reductions will affect your workforce and your bottom line in the medium-term, in the form of disengagement, deepening burnout, and a potential worsening of the widespread negativity that eats away at healthy corporate cultures.

And from a compliance-focused perspective, each of those negative trends in your workforce could lead to bigger, costlier challenges down the road.

2. Not so fast in reverse!

Why? The answer lies in psychology. While our economic behaviors may bounce back to “normal” post-pandemic, our hearts and minds simply cannot. Although the health threat of the pandemic has decreased, the psychological shifts and challenges underpinning the Great Resignation, and the emotional damage of the pandemic years, are still with us—and they’re likely holding much of your workforce’s well-being captive.

In March, results of the American Psychological Association’s recurring Stress in America survey showed levels of stress that are unprecedented. Respondents reported financial stress (at the highest levels since 2015), stress over inflation and international conflict, and ongoing stress related to the pandemic. These stressors compounded our already tenuous psychological state: more than half of respondents (56%) said that they could have used more emotional support than they received during the pandemic.

And this isn’t just in the United States—last month, the World Health Organization reported a 25% spike in anxiety and depression worldwide. The General Social Survey also found that society’s happiness plummeted from 2018 to 2020.

It would be foolhardy to assume the employees in your organization are emerging from the pandemic with the same psychological resilience they had before it began.

The pandemic was not just a public health threat, but it brought about an “infodemic,” wherein people were constantly given disturbing news, for months on end, which ultimately harmed individuals and their performance at work. The infodemic has not ended, creating a situation in which some individuals remain in a cycle of negative rumination and catastrophizing. Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD, APA’s chief executive officer noted, “living through historic threats like these often has a lasting, traumatic impact on generations.”

What’s the result?  According to several neurobiologists, long-term burnout from extreme stress causes us to develop what is known as an “aversive lens.”  The brain begins to perceive threats where there are none. The brain interprets even neutral events and individuals as negative or threatening.

So what does this have to do with how you lead your employees now? To explore the answer, you must first imagine that the majority of your workforce – regardless of their role or title – is suffering with that ‘aversive lens’ of skepticism and negativity, burdened by stress and anxiety from prolonged burnout.

This invites both a new challenge and an opportunity.

First, the challenge. If employees sense a reduction in support from their employer, they might not quit, but then what? Given our collective mental state, we can expect to see disengagement at an all-time high. We would not be surprised to see compliance, service, innovation, and efficiency all decrease.

This is why the topic of “quiet quitting” has received such a great deal of attention over the past month. Quiet quitting refers to employees shifting their mindset and behavior at work such that they focus their efforts on their core job duties, and largely opt out of performing tasks beyond the boundaries of their job description. From their perspective, quiet quitting represents a sensible strategy—continuing to provide the value to the organization that they were hired to provide, while protecting their well-being from the documented strain associated with going above and beyond job duties. But for employers who have relied on workers to go beyond their job descriptions when needed—to stay late, arrive early, anticipate problems, and proactively help their coworkers, often without recognition—quiet quitting represents a challenge that is arguably greater than actual quitting.

Where is the opportunity? When people experience high levels of stress, they seek safe harbors, places in their lives where they are supported and where others have their best interests in mind. Through that skeptical and negative “aversive” lens, right now, many employees are watching their company’s actions and looking for signals of safety and benevolence. This moment represents an opportunity for leaders to send powerful signals to their employees that at work: they are valued and supported. Put another way, in this critical moment, there lies a largely untapped opportunity to build trust with employees.

Of course, building trust does not just benefit employees. When employees trust their company, they give it the benefit of the doubt when it makes missteps. And, they stick with it even when times are tough. In this moment of uncertainty about the world and experimentation with new ways of working, failures along the way are inevitable. Trust is the key to breaking the cycle of doubt, resentment, and negativity caused by the psychological consequences of the pandemic.

3. What’s around the corner?  

Most executives would likely agree that building trust with employees is important. So why isn’t there more trust in the workplace today?

The answer is straightforward, but not easy. The core element of a trusting relationship is vulnerability. Anyone who has maintained a happy partnership knows that to build a trust-based relationship, often one side has to begin by being vulnerable, even when the other side is not ready, or able, to do the same.

Right now, in their moment of stress, that is what employees are seeking—a leader who is willing to take a step towards their employees, to makes themselves vulnerable; not seeking sympathy for their own self-interest, or performative vulnerability, but vulnerability on behalf of their workers.

As the leader, you may think, “this is an uncomfortable and stressful moment for me as well!” And it’s true; you are expected to lead in different ways than before. Lead remotely, in a more inclusive way, juggling three generations of workers, through unprecedented social and political events. Of course, making yourself vulnerable may be your last instinct.

But it is what employees are looking for in this moment. Leaders who aren’t afraid to get uncomfortable and place their complete trust in their workers. At a high level, this means making meaningful investments in employees and their well-being and trusting that employees will reciprocate with effort and loyalty. These investments are not just monetary, but also involve how leaders spend their time.

What does building this trust look like in practice? It begins with listening, ideally in one-on-one settings. Spending time to listen—without judgment or agenda – to how each leader and manager’s direct reports are experiencing work and life in this moment. From these conversations, leaders will gain an understanding of the similarities and differences between the ways in which their workers are experiencing this unique moment in the world of work. As leaders listen, they are collecting what we would call qualitative data, which they can then reflect on, and analyze, to devise ways to invest in their overall work groups, and each individual employee, in ways that will most contribute to each individual’s well-being and strengthen trust between leaders and their followers.

These individual conversations can’t be replaced with surveys, webinars, polls, or other less intimate tools that many companies have leaned on to take the pulse of their workforce. Genuine human interaction—the foundation of a trusting relationship—can’t be replicated. Helping employees in this way fell by the wayside during the pandemic for many industries and companies—eliminating one on ones, eliminating regular opportunities for positive connections; the necessities of the time made many managers focus on only what was necessary to get through the crisis. It’s time to turn your calendar back to employees.

Thriving through the Next “Pandemic”

The pandemic and other events of the past two years caused millions of workers to reflect on their lives and their relationship with work. In organizational psychology, these events are referred to as “turnover shocks,” although rarely do they happen on such a widespread scale.

Although we do not know what they will be, more turnover shocks will surely come. And they will cause employees—already stressed and skeptical—to further withdraw and ask fundamental questions about the health of their relationship with their jobs. When those shocks inevitably occur, and workers ask those questions, leaders’ investments today to build trust with employees and to care for their well-being will pay off. Although relationship building doesn’t sound too futuristic, it turns out that it can play a key role in future-proofing your business.

Right now is a moment of temptation for weary leaders. Can we just go back to the way things were in 2019? With care and understanding, the answer is: no, you can’t. Leadership is about looking forward and seizing the opportunities to strengthen organizations when they present themselves. In the face of the many challenges that come with every opportunity, embrace new ways of working, be vulnerable and built trust. In doing so, our fields of study show us that you will position your organization to grow stronger in the face of whatever storms the future brings.


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