Chris Read: Onwards and upwards

Thankfully, lockdowns are over (for now) and it's time to emerge from our caves, writes Chris Read in his final pandemic-penned column for RP

It’s a busy time indeed for headhunters and recruitment agents alike. Demand is outstripping the supply of talent, and I’m not just talking about the scarcity of HGV drivers now. As the hybrid workplace takes hold, there is an increasing strain on HR departments to develop new working policies, while simultaneously responding to rapid salary inflation.

It seems counter-intuitive to be, on the one hand, providing greater working benefits and practices, while increasing your payroll costs with the other hand. You would normally expect to see a balance between the two. But we are not in normal times. There is pressure on companies to ‘up the ante’ across the board. Of course, this will stoke the inflationary fires already present in the economy… but needs must.

As this is my last lockdown article here in Retirement Planner, I want to reflect on some of the articles I wrote in the early days of the pandemic in April 2020. Some of the thoughts expressed then have as much relevance today. I noted, “In a corner of our logical brain we know that in the era of pandemics it’s all too possible that as one lockdown passes another will follow. Vaccines will come and go; some will cure, some won’t. With the global economy in a coma, supply chains undone, unemployment climbing, talk of a new economic depression gathering pace and no longer seeming too farfetched.”

Well, I think I was correct only on a few of these thoughts. The global economy is far from comatose today. However, supply chains continue to be strained and inflation looks like it will become a little stickier than even I predicted.

Last April, we hoped the lockdown to be short. We certainly did not expect it to go on for over a year. Now, 18 months on, we have emerged into a new hybrid working model. Time to encourage work colleagues, hidden by anxiety and avoidance behaviour, back to interacting in person in the workplace.

Step into the light

What is increasingly called ‘Cave Syndrome’ can be debilitating. Sufferers are aware they need to return to life outside their homes; however, they feel unable to do so. A little like Stockholm syndrome – a condition in which hostages develop a bond with their captors – those suffering with Cave Syndrome have a bond with their homes.

Whilst hardened WFH’ers are gradually being cajoled out of their self-imposed incarcerations and our offices are slowly refilling, Covid-19 has not fully dissipated. Other than commitments to hybrid working arrangements, reconfiguring the office and pastoral vigilance, we will need to be sensitive to long Covid.

We are starting to learn more about long Covid, of which there is no universally accepted definition. Symptoms include fatigues, shortness of breath, brain fog, insomnia and so. The effects can come and go. On some days, they may feel fine. On others, sufferers report being unable to work. As employers, we will need to ensure work can easily and flexibly be covered and plan protocols for absence and support on return to work.

The number of long Covid sufferers is not yet precise. However, the Imperial College React-2 report estimates it has affecting as many as one in 20 of us – nearly 2 million people in the UK alone. The UK’s National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) proposes that long Covid could be subdivided into four different syndromes. These include post-intensive-care syndrome, long-term organ damage, post-viral fatigue syndrome and long-term syndrome caused by a continuation of Covid-19 symptoms.

The TUC is lobbying to strengthen the Equality Act 2010 by defining long Covid as a disability. They are also calling the Equality and Human Rights Commission to produce guidance for employers. As an employer, we may want to record long Covid separately from sick leave and ensure there are return to work assessments made available to sufferers.

In a recent report “Rethinking Herd Immunity and the Covid-19 Response End Game” from Johns Hopkins University, they cite that herd immunity will not be achieved as the level of those unvaccinated remains high (in the US).

It is estimated that 95% of the population will need to be vaccinated (and continue to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity at the same levels achieved by the measles vaccination). They believe that there will be ongoing coronavirus transmission for many years to come… if not forever!

As we know, even if you have been vaccinated you can still be infected, as so-called breakthrough infections emerge. Businesses of all types need to be prepared for long Covid as a factor in business planning and resource management.

Long Covid aside, we can finally look forward to slightly less fearful social interactions in the workplace and in our leisure time. Masks will spend more time in our pockets than on our faces for a good while we hope. It leaves the inevitable question in this, my final Lockdown column for Retirement Planner: what will the ‘new normal’ look like as we look forward into 2022?

Pause to reflect

More out of desire, than strong evidence to date, I’d like to think that the last 18 months has offered a significant pause for reflection and reset for all of us. It should be no surprise therefore that addressing climate change and, more widely, the ESG performance of our investments came sharply into the spotlight in 2020-21.

Can we also begin to tackle other corrosive world issues like growing inequalities in income levels which feeds into the migrant crises on many borders today? Are we more receptive to addressing these larger, systemic issues today than we were before the pandemic? I’d like to think the answer is an emphatic ‘Yes’. 

And finally… a big thank you to Jenna Brown and Retirement Planner for giving space to the 42 Lockdown Thought pieces I’ve penned for this great magazine over the last 18 months.

I’m only sorry that RP will itself be closing later this month as it’s done fantastic service to the pensions space over many years.

Chris Read is group CEO at Dunstan Thomas