Chris Read: The Covid-19 Divine Comedy

The journey from lockdown purgatory to ‘new normal’ paradise requires a stronger focus on mental as well as physical health, writes Chris Read

Born 1265 in Florence, Dante Alighieri depicted a journey through hell, via purgatory and then ultimately into heaven or paradise in the poem the Divine Comedy.

If Dante were here today writing the Divine Comedy, would he be telling the tale of the performance of the authorities in handling the pandemic? Perhaps he would be writing about the three worlds presented in front of us today: the time before, during and after Covid-19.

Today we are sandwiched between the two worlds of before and after.

In this modern-day Divine Comedy, our world would map into Dante’s middle world – ‘Purgatorio’. Dante describes purgatory as a mountain with seven terraces. Each terrace is occupied by one of the seven deadly sins of lustfulness, gluttony, greed, slothfulness, wrath, envy, and pride.

Which of the deadly sins have you committed? Which ones would you map into the three lockdowns we’ve had so far? I know I’ve suffered from gluttony and slothfulness, so that’s two. I suspect any of the others will fit for a third.

As the dim light of the exit from our own personal purgatory gets tantalizingly brighter, we are asking ourselves ‘Will we have more lockdowns when this one abates?’ The received wisdom seems to say no, not linked to Covid-19 anyhow. With the success of the vaccine rollout exceeding expectations and infection rates falling, there is much to be happy and thankful about. We certainly seem to be approaching the endgame to the purgatory of lockdowns.

As we look with anticipation to the world after, there is a growing recognition of the changes in working practices, not least the role and function of the office. There is much discussion in the media on what offices may look like and good examples of how businesses are changing. However, workspaces and commercial buildings are useless unless filled with people, with activity and life.

Loneliness

Like poor souls stuck in purgatory, not everyone will speed head long into social engagement without hesitation as the doors of the office fling open. I am seeing the habits forged during lockdown more difficult to revert. Will agoraphobia, solitude and anxiety be part and parcel of the ‘new normal’? Businesses across the country are already coming to terms with the effects of prolonged isolation and loneliness which has hit some very hard.

In response, I am seeing corporate empathy in new leadership roles emerge to focus on people, not in an HR way, but in a listening and supporting way – helping those that are struggling with feeling trapped and alone. People in your leadership team with psychotherapy or sociology degrees, may find themselves in hot demand as we emerge from what has been a very real purgatory for some of your staff.

Perhaps it would make sense for business leaders to re-assess their people in the context of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This may help reevaluate the level of support our work colleagues need by increasing our focus on supporting their basic needs i.e., the parts of the Hierarchy of Needs that hitherto had been taken as read.

More time will be spent working with our colleagues to assist them with their psychological as well as physical health and safety needs at work. A fresh eye on personal security, secure employment, health and shelter may be needed. Without this focus, other layers of the Hierarchy of Needs will remain unattainable.

Last week was Children’s Mental Health Week. Just as children should not have to face mental health problems alone, neither should our work colleagues. As Dante emerged from purgatory, he entered paradise, a suitable allegory for how we leave lockdown and enter a new world – making sure we don’t forget those whose journey out of purgatory maybe slower and more strained.

 Chris Read is group CEO of Dunstan Thomas