One key factor for business success in 2023 will be the willingness of its leadership and employees to adapt to the new realities. This January marks the three-year anniversary of COVID beginning to be recognized in the U.S., while most Americans weren’t truly aware of it until February or March of 2020. COVID-19 continues to affect so many citizens and decisions of local community members and is still a lens that we need to look through when assessing where we are at as a community.

Let’s stop right here for a second.

That was a test.

How did you feel about the mention of COVID? What was your gut reaction to the second and third sentences in that opening paragraph? Did you nod in agreement with the statements? Did you roll your eyes at another mention of COVID because you’re bored with talking about it? Did you get angry because some community leader just made a big deal about COVID when it’s “no big deal”?

If you did roll your eyes or did get angry, then this column is for you.

In this example, I chose to use COVID, but I could have chosen a number of societal stressors to make the point about our new realities. I could have picked the lack of affordable housing, substance abuse, heating oil prices, wages, childcare, mental health or more. The point being these are all stressors that many of our employees are dealing with; they bring these stressors to work with them every day. Or they call in sick or don’t show up because these stressors are overwhelming them.


Now you may think that having these stressors is irrelevant. You may believe that we all have stress and that we all worry about many of these things, but you still need to come to work and produce at the same level. You have policies that have made you a successful business and those policies must be adhered to, including scheduling, punctuality and minimum production standards.

Actually, you’re probably understaffed right now and are asking your smaller-than-ideal staff to take on a bit more than normal until you can get staffed up again to better levels. You might be asking your employees to ignore these stressors and actually produce more than what they would have if you were typically staffed to make up for the lost people. In some cases, you have been understaffed since early in the pandemic, so you have been asking your staffs to do extra for going on three years now. It went from being a “temporary ramp-up” to now being the new baseline expectation. And your people are burning out — and those stressors that you don’t care about are getting heavier for them to carry — and everyone is just tired all of the time.

That’s quite a doom cycle.

The point is whether you believe your employees should be overwhelmed by their stressors, whatever those stressors may be, how you feel isn’t really important. Sure, 10 years ago, when unemployment was 5%-9%, you could tell those employees that perhaps they weren’t a good fit anymore, but that’s not the world we live in anymore. Ask any business without dedicated talent recruitment teams how many applications they’re getting in right now from people off the street responding to a “now hiring” sign. Clearly, there isn’t a never-ending pool of candidates to replace the ones who don’t prescribe to a theory of “don’t bring your stressors to work.”

If you ignore your employees’ stressors, they will either: burn out and leave, stay only for the wages/benefits (which is only a temporary solution), or move on to a business that does care about their stressors. Literally, the only option for you is to be that business that cares about those stressors.

Do your employees worry about bringing COVID home to their families? Maybe it’s time to discuss a masking policy. Having a sign that asks customers to mask up because your employees want to protect their families shows your customers you have their backs. Is this a fit for all offices and businesses? Nope. But do you know if this is a concern of your employees? You should ask them.


What about asking your employees to overproduce because you’re understaffed? Have you been a business that is open for six days a week but really only has staff for four and a half days? It’s common for some business owners to ask their employees to step up during busy weeks of the year, but constantly overworking your staff — even if it’s rewarded with extra pay — will burn your people out. We were not meant to live in crisis mode.

All business owners need to look at options. Working harder is only an option for so long. Adaptability is the key. We should be asking ourselves certain questions, such as: What can automation do to help our processes? Is quantity more important than quality? What policies can help address your employees’ biggest personal concerns? It’s not just about them — the business owners need this, too. You can’t pick up everyone’s extra work in perpetuity — it’s unhealthy.

This leads to a vital question, which I will dive into more throughout this year, but is this the year we decide to slow down? Every year we yearn to make increases over the previous years. Let’s beat last year’s sales goals, last quarter’s stock price and get beyond 100% budget to goal.

What if we didn’t? What if we reduced projections this year? What if we said, let’s do 90% of the revenue we did last year? To compensate, we will be open a half-day or a full day less, which cuts our payroll expenses a bit, but it also will give our employees more three-day weekends. Is that trade-off worth it? Will the quality of the work produced be better and the work culture be healthier? Will this extend employee retention? Maybe yes or maybe no. But it’s a question we should all be asking.

Cory King is executive director of the Bath-Brunswick Regional Chamber of Commerce.

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