What Positive Outcomes Might The Pandemic Bring To The Work World?

Image by Claudia Wollesen from Pixabay

There is a popular aphorism advanced by apparent kindred spirits Friedrich Nietzsche and Kelly Clarkson: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” For all of the disruption, pain, chaos, and hardship caused by the pandemic, is it possible there could be some constructive consequences for the world of work as we lurch toward some new normal?

This seemingly provocative and even preposterous question is not about the Pollyanna character in popular culture and her “glad game” in which she would find something to be glad about in every situation. Not at all. The pandemic has taken a terrible toll on many businesses and their workplaces. On people, their jobs, and their careers. There is little about the pandemic to be “glad” about.

Yet, for all of the adversity of the last 14 months our institutions and our communities — at least in the U.S. — by and large have survived. Our social and economic systems did not experience wholesale collapse and some businesses have not only survived but have found ways to thrive in these tough times.

This is not to suggest that anyone should be considering a victory lap. There are parts of the world where the virus is raging and the human cost is staggering and we just don’t know yet about when they will turn the corner on this pandemic. But there is at least cautious optimism because of the vaccines.

As we reimagine and even speculate on the morphing world of work, there’s something else that’s worth considering — a concept in science called “hormesis.” It’s used to describe adaptive responses to moderate environmental or self-imposed challenges through which the person or system improves its functionality and/or tolerance to more severe challenges. That is, too much of something can be bad or even fatal but a moderate amount can help make us stronger or better. Sound familiar? “What doesn’t kill you…”

Intermittent fasting is an example of hormesis, as there is evidence that it can be beneficial. Working out to build muscle strength is another. The micro-tears to muscles when we have a rigorous workout heal and in turn help to build muscle mass. Sports medicine doctor Michael Karns from the Cleveland Medical Center puts it this way: “You have to break muscle down to build it back up stronger.”

Hormesis, then, posits that a moderate amount of stress on an organism or a system — including human systems — can contribute to a higher level of performance.

But how relevant is it really for framing the pandemic, because in some parts of the U.S. and in other countries the pandemic has created a huge rather than a moderate amount of stress? Perhaps that makes the idea of hormesis interesting to consider conceptually but too far-fetched to have utility as we consider the possible scenarios about post-pandemic work and workplaces…

Yes, I think it’s a stretch but nonetheless, I ask the reader to acknowledge that the principle has some merit when used in the context of thinking about the unintended consequences of the pandemic. Let’s at least presume that it’s germane to the conversation.

Since “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and hormesis have real-life applications, in what ways, then, might there be elements or aspects of the work world that can be thought of as “stronger” or better in the emerging and somewhat uncertain post-pandemic period?

Here are some realities and probabilities, several of which were provided by friends and former colleagues to whom I queried about this topic:

In sum, the pandemic has disrupted the world in many negative ways, some of which we haven’t even comprehended yet. Some of those disruptions, though, have an element of upside to them. For example, most people I know have expressed newfound gratitude for simple things that were taken for granted before, such as social get-togethers with friends and family.

And the world of work is a subset of that larger world and as explored here, there are some business and work-related pluses and positive developments — new beginnings, even — that have emerged from this crisis. In many cases, Nietzsche and Kelly Clarkson got it right.

About the author: Mike Hoban is a business topics writer and leadership coach/ advisor. He is actively working at becoming a world-class grandpa to his five young granddaughters. In addition to his 35+ years experience as a leader, consultant and business owner he has also published extensively in Fast Company and wrote a business column for 12 years. Many of his recent commentaries — including several about leading during the COVID crisis — can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/ He can also be reached at mjhoban99@gmail.com.

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Mike Hoban

Mike Hoban is a West Michigan-based leadership coach and advisor who also writes about business topics.