Britain’s business community has plenty of challenges ahead. Companies need to rebuild their battered balance sheets and win back customers. Taxes and inflation are likely to rise. Among the tasks leaders must address will be their diminished corporate culture. I suspect that a year of lockdowns and pandemic-driven fear has led to a serious mental health crisis among workforces.
Many firms have navigated these terrible times well in a financial sense — and a minority have boomed. However, even those in sectors that have prospered, such as healthcare, e-commerce and digital communications, will have seen a lot of staff suffer during these dystopian times. Swapping office-based human interactions for hours of staring at a screen at home, largely isolated from the real world, is almost a recipe for alienation and disenchantment.
Meanwhile, almost all physical social activities are banned, the news is dominated by death and sickness, and all conversations with strangers are conducted wearing facemasks.
I deal with people — accountants, bankers and lawyers — who have not met their work colleagues in person since March last year. To me this is bizarre, but I suspect it is not at all unusual. Such disengagement is bound to undermine commitment and any sense of belonging. We are social creatures. Digital conversations are not real life — they are dreadful substitutes, pale simulacra of real connections.
Every organisation has fared differently. Some have been totally shut for almost a year — theatres, nightclubs, most hotels and exhibition companies. I know that many workers in these trades are close to despair, making ends meet thanks to furlough but terrified that they will have no job when lockdowns finally end, and bored beyond belief. Paying active people for extended periods of enforced idleness is bound to have bad outcomes. I fear that too few have acquired new skills or got fitter.
I suspect that millions are literally out of practice in dealing with other people face to face. Social distancing, endless restrictions and the government’s scaremongering have fuelled a sense of paranoia and hypochondria. I would be astonished if levels of anxiety and depression are not at all-time highs. The charity Mind says the country is facing a mental health pandemic.
No doubt some middle-class, middle-aged workers are enjoying seeing more of their families and not commuting. Others, meanwhile, are exhausted. They have been working flat out — in hospitals, factories and warehouses, making deliveries, collecting the rubbish, driving buses, on building sites and in supermarkets, pharmacies and power stations — the 10 million essential workers keeping society going. No doubt some are resentful that they are grafting away while millions are paid by taxpayers to do nothing.
So what can be done about this disaster? As the government ends house arrest, business leaders should welcome their staff back to the workplace in person. They need to identify who is unwilling to return, and whether anyone has some sort of long-term problem. A great many companies have been restructured, or employees have left voluntarily. Some people are looking for a lifestyle change and have resigned, or moved away from cities or back to their home countries. For the first time in 30 years, London’s population is in sharp decline. Unless that recovers, it is unlikely that Britain’s economy will return to real growth.
Employers will have to focus more on the wellbeing of their human capital. This may be a great time for providers of therapy and psychological help. I fear that loneliness, divorce, domestic abuse, bankruptcies and even suicide will increase in the months and years ahead because of the awful impact of lockdowns and relentless propaganda.
Companies may well have to improve the ways they support their people to keep them motivated. Never in modern history has such a disruptive social experiment been conducted on entire nations. The consequences are sure to be harmful and long-lasting.
The worst-affected will be the unemployed and freelancers who have mostly earned nothing since March. They cannot benefit from the systems some companies have to provide counselling and even private medical care to those of their staff who are ailing.
We all hope that, in the coming weeks, deaths from Covid-19 decline sharply and vaccinations continue apace, and that we are allowed to regain our basic freedoms and be human beings once more, rather than frightened prisoners. We must hope too that universal lockdowns — blunt, discriminatory interventions of unproven effectiveness — are never permitted again.