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Organisations Under Stress: What We Are Noticing | The Work Psychologists

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

By Elloa Phoenix Barbour, Head of Content for The Work Psychologists

Panic working.

Back-to-back Zoom meetings.

No room to share and process the challenges, losses and fears that come from living and working in a pandemic.

And in some cases, even higher expectations of people than normal.

These are just a few things we at The Work Psychologists have been noticing about what’s taking place in organisations in recent weeks.

This is an extraordinarily difficult time. It has been described as “A Global Pause” by some, but from our observations, right now is anything but a pause or slow down.

In this article, we have outlined some of the key observations from the organisations we’ve been in contact with or are connected to. We are also doing some research so that we have a layer of evidence-based data to use in conjunction with our observations, which will inform our work. To participate, get in touch:

We’re not sharing any of the following to shame or blame anyone, but to invite leadership teams throughout organisations to pause, step back and think about what might be going on in the systems they are working in, and to respond instead of react.

If you notice you're part of or possibly even contributing to any of these, we can help – we're offering free 60 minute consultations at the moment, to help you apply evidence-based strategies alongside an understanding of the psychology of what's going on. Scroll to the bottom for more info.

Without further ado, here is some of what we are noticing.

1. People are drowning in meetings

With the much more restricted way of life in full force, and organisations large and small having been catapulted into becoming almost totally remote overnight, one might reasonably expect there to have been some fear-based, controlling or chaotic responses.

Five or so weeks in, and this certainly appears to be the case in many organisations – particularly larger ones, and nowhere is this more visible than in how meetings are being conducted.

  • People are sitting in back to back Zoom meetings from 9am until 5pm, often for multiple days a week – and still being expected to do their job.

  • All meetings are being scheduled for an hour, even though there is no reason this arbitrary amount of time is needed.

  • There’s no break in between meetings.

  • Meetings are taking place over lunch.

  • Little consideration is being made for people who have children.

  • An hour spent in a virtual meeting is more draining than an hour spent with people in person, yet this is not being reflected in many organisations’ meeting policies.

People are in meetings all day long. And nobody is calling out how crazy this is.

How is this happening? There's no one reason, as far as we can see.

In some organisations, there seems to have been a lack of clear communication from the C-Suite across the organisation about what is fair and reasonable. There seems to be an unconscious, unspoken collective assumption that to meet is to be productive, that the illusion of being hyper-connected will substitute for the distance. In some organisations or teams, the need to meet endlessly is indicative of a lack of trust. And perhaps because of lack of psychological safety, or for another reason, people aren't challenging it.

Well, we will.

Endless online meetings are not supporting people. More than once, we have heard people talking about being in “yet another pointless meeting.” They are not facilitating productivity and they’re wearing people out.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Leaders could calculate the cost of all those people sitting in meetings and assess whether this is the best way to use the organisation’s resources, for example. Or they could decide to use this as an opportunity to explore best practice for meetings, or to really scrutinise when and why people meet. It feels like many organisations are defaulting to meeting rather than thinking. A different approach is needed.

2. Those who aren’t furloughed are overworked

A stressed, overworked person hits burnout
Image credit: Aaron Blanco Tejedor

We know that our essential workers, particularly those in the NHS, are working in really tough conditions right now.

This is happening in other organisations too, regardless of the sector. Many employees have been furloughed, enabling their employer to access government support to pay up to 80% of people’s wages.

But those who have not been furloughed, or who have been un-furloughed, have more work to do than usual.

Let’s remember that in ‘usual’ times, most of us are spinning far too many plates and juggling far too many balls already. Seriously.

We tend to just accept that to be in any kind of leadership position, or even, to be employed, is to be overstretched and overworked, but this is not a given. Many people and organisations are consciously pushing back against working-close-to-the-edge-of-burnout as a default setting.

Continuing to overload people's plates is unsustainable, for many reasons.

Firstly, the survival of an organisation being on the shoulders of a few is an enormous burden to bear, but in the midst of a global pandemic and the ensuing financial crisis, the pressure may feel even heavier.

In addition, without the separation of home and work, and without the ability to go out into the world and do the activities and be with the people who help put high-pressure work into perspective, the workload and accompanying pressure for it to get done to a certain standard are stifling at best and simply too much at worst.

3. We are coping, but we are hardly thriving

We commonly respond to “How are you?” with something like “Not bad” or “Fine.” Recently however, we’ve noticed a subtle yet important shift in how some people are responding. “Yeah, coping,” they say, or “Surviving.”

In ‘normal’ times (whatever those are), the pat responses of “not bad” or “fine” conceal a world of complexity about how people are actually doing. The cases of work-related stress, depression and anxiety are sky high, and climb every year – and that is outside of a pandemic. Right now, if the best many of us can muster is to say we are “coping” or “surviving,” it might indicate that below the surface, in the privacy of people’s inner worlds, things are far from okay.

We can do what needs to be done to keep our organisations afloat. It’s important that we do. But if we ignore what’s really happening for people, we are essentially communicating that the organisation and the pursuit of profit are more important than the welfare and wellbeing of the people who work in it – and for us, that doesn’t sit well at all.

4. Trauma, grief and loss are accumulating

A statue of a person experiencing loss, trauma and grief
Image credit: K Mitch Hodge via

Loss is an unavoidable part of life – including the loss of life. But right now, the losses people are experiencing are what writer and attachment and loss expert Scott Pine calls “unnecessary loss.”

  • The sudden and unexpected death of a loved one because of a virus that did not exist six months ago is an example of an unnecessary loss.

  • So too is the loss of all kinds of togetherness that has been part of our species’ make up for hundreds of thousands of years.

  • There’s the loss of your company’s culture, which you may have taken years to carefully cultivate.

  • Then there’s the disconnection from a hopeful and secure future, which as Johann Hari explains so extraordinarily in Lost Connections, is a little-known cause of depression.

  • There’s the loss of income, of hopes and dreams, of significant life milestones, and of life as we knew it.

The pandemic has not been “the great leveller,” as it has been naively described by some, because we live with such varying degrees of privilege and disadvantage, structurally built into the systems in which we live. Some people are having the equivalent of a long holiday, whilst others are in a living hell.

However, regardless of who we are, it is worth bearing in mind that there have been countless losses in people’s lives worldwide in the last couple of months regardless of pre-existing inequality.

Loss is not a competitive sport. The grief of losing a loved one or colleague is not comparable to the grief of having your wedding postponed, or of being unable to hold a relative at a funeral, or of having your dreams put on hold, potentially indefinitely.

Grief accompanies loss, and perhaps now more than ever, we are in a moment of collective grieving. Some of us will be making contact with our grief. Others will be suppressing, denying or avoiding it.

In addition, for many people the pandemic, lockdown and depth of powerlessness to change or overcome this situation has triggered old trauma or has created new trauma. These are not easy times we are living in.

In the midst of this, many of us are still going to work, or are at home, waiting for the day when we can return. Leaders cannot ignore or overlook this. We absolutely need to bear this in mind.

5. The parents among us are not ok

Many with children are struggling - understandably. Having to figure out how to home school your child overnight whilst running the home, worrying about the state of the world and doing your job is an unsustainable situation. The parents among us are not okay, as this excellent Medium article explains.

Many feel extremely burdened by the pressure to stop their children from ‘falling behind’ and feel responsible for their children’s future. Parents with more than one child are having to grapple with each child’s developmental stage and variations in the curriculum. Working on top of this, especially those working at home, is enormously stressful for many. The article linked above pulls no punches in highlighting that the parents are not okay.

6. We are not all in the same boat

uncertainty, fear
Image credit: Sensei Minimal via

While we may all be under the same set of guidelines issued by the UK government, we are not all going through the same thing. People are having extremely diverse experiences in the lockdown, and there is no one-size-fits-all way of understanding and making sense of this strange time.

Metaphorically, some of us are on yachts in Monaco right now, while others are in a rubber dinghy with holes in that is on the brink of capsizing, without a life ring. It seems an obvious yet necessary thing to point out, because despite this, many employers are not flexing or accommodating their employees, whose lives have changed immeasurably in the last six to eight weeks.

7. There is a huge amount of fear around, and a huge amount of uncertainty

People are scared about so many things right now. As well as being in a collective moment of loss and grief, we are also facing and holding huge questions connected to survival. Surviving and ensuring the sustaining of life is primary goal of the part of the brain known as the ‘emotional brain’ – the reptilian and limbic systems. None of us know what the world is going to become, how long we're going to be in this, or what is next.

We cannot successfully operate from our cognitive brain, the frontal cortex, if the emotional brain senses that we are in danger.

We cannot do our best work in survival mode.

We say this a lot to our clients, but it's true.

Our resources get pooled to ensure the survival and protection of ourselves and our loved ones. We cannot also be expected to be winning the productivity game right now.

8. Start-ups are often doing things better than most

Bretton Putter, the founder of a culture consultancy, CultureGene, surveyed 165 start-ups worldwide at the end of March 2020, and found that:

  • Start-ups are very consciously trying to humanise the digital way of working and are working on developing and extending their cultures

  • Trust is high on the agenda

  • Leaders in start-ups are anticipating that daily whole team calls that are longer than 15 minutes are going to have a detrimental impact on productivity (which contrasts hugely with the way many incumbent organisations are approaching meetings, as discussed above).

The interesting thing about Brett’s study, from our perspective, is that it shows just how capable we are of doing things differently and of responding rather than reacting in every area of a business. Start-ups are typically less encumbered by bureaucracy and ‘process’ and are freer to innovate, experiment and pivot rapidly when things look like they’re heading off course.

Larger, more rigidly structured organisations (in which everything has to go up and down the chain of command for approval and sign off, and where those in different parts of the ecosystem are not listened to or asked for their perspective, despite their proximity to parts of the wider ecosystem than anybody else) are much more susceptible to operating like an oil tanker rather than a speedboat – slow and cumbersome, and unable to quickly change course. Kudos to David Hieatt for this excellent analogy.

This could be a time to explore a brave new way of working, as advocated by Aaron Dignan, or to decide to evolve the organisation into one fit for the twenty-first century. If they way people are tied to meetings is just one indication of how well the outdated 20th century approach is working, the imperative to act should be obvious.

In conclusion

There may be many great opportunities buried in these challenging times.

As Ryan Holiday writes, “the obstacle is the way.” The chance to discern what is truly essential work, what our highest point of contribution is, is one such opportunity. To do this, things need to slow down a little. People need some space and time to pause and reflect.

It is up to their leaders to give them that – to truly lead rather than to succumb to the exhausting and fruitless temptation to do more, push more and produce more. This is a time for brave, out-of-the-box, vulnerable leadership. Yes, income needs to be generated, but whether a toxic culture is generated in the process is optional.

So what?

If any of the following issues resonate you want to take action to address them, we are offering free 60 minute consultations.

We're not going to sell anything to you.

We're interested in building relationships and helping where we can. If something comes of it further down the road, that's brilliant, but right now, the question we're asking is 'How can we help?', and these free sessions are part of our answer.

We will provide you with evidence-based solutions and you'll leave the call with a strategy and clear action points. Interested?

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