Claudia Calder provides tips on reducing stress in the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stress is defined as “the adverse reaction a person has to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed upon them.

But there is a difference between pressure and stress. Pressure is something we experience on a daily basis, enabling us as a motivator to perform at our best. When we experience too much pressure, this turns into stress.

Generally, a stressful experience is where an individual cannot cope successfully or perceives that they cannot cope successfully, resulting in unwanted physical, mental, or emotional responses. In some people, it is a slow build-up, which eventually comes to a head and causing a physiological imbalance, which can affect performance.

These are unprecedented times and the COVID-19 pandemic has touched us all. Many of us don’t know what our future looks like, and this lack of control is causing stress.

For others, who are now working at home, juggling work and family life, may feel isolated from others in their ‘normal’ working environment causing stress. This form of stress is a result of a lack of support or difficulty in maintaining relationships. Some people, such as healthcare workers, have had their workloads (demands) increased may feel additional pressure which also can turn into stress.

Stress, like most physiological responses, manifests in different people in different ways, causing some people to withdraw or turn to alcohol (or other substances, including food) to cope with their situation. Unfortunately, one fix does not work for all, as stress is often the result of a combination of factors in both personal and working lives.

Controlling work-related stressors

The Health and Safety Executive has developed a set of standards of management practice for controlling work-related stressors and are aimed at those stressors that affect the majority of workers in an organization and cover six main factors which can lead to work-related stress:

  1. The demands of your job
  2. The control over your work
  3. The support you receive from managers and colleagues
  4. Your relationships at work
  5. Your role in the organization
  6. Change and how its managed

Understanding the details of what these risk factors are in your workplace, identifying which areas may be presenting problems, and then working with employees (and their representatives) to take action to reduce these problems.

What can you do to reduce stress at work?

An area that needs to be added to the list is stress (risk) factors associated with COVID-19, so as an employer what can you do to reduce stress from COVID-19:

  • Regularly ask your workers how they are doing and if anything is stressing them
  • Where workers are distressed about the challenging conditions caused by the pandemic, acknowledge their feelings about the situation, and reassure workers they are doing what they can in the circumstances
  • Stay informed with information from official sources and regularly communicate or share this information with workers
  • Consult your workers and representatives on any risks to their psychological health and physical health and safety
  • Support innovations to address the psychosocial risks where you reasonably can
  • Provide workers with a point of contact to discuss their concerns
  • Make workplace information available in a central place
  • Inform workers about their entitlements if they become unfit for work or have caring responsibilities
  • Proactively support workers who you identify to be more at risk of workplace psychological injury (e.g. frontline workers or those working from home)
  • Refer workers to appropriate work-related mental health and wellbeing support services, such as employee assistance programs

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Non-work-related causes of stress

There are things that may stress your workers during the COVID-19 pandemic that may not be work-related. Even though you may not have legal obligations in relation to that stress, you should take this into account, and if you are able to, offer workers increased support and flexibility to get through this difficult time.

These stressors could include some or all of the following:

  • Financial stress, e.g., from reduced hours, loss of employment (such as their own secondary employment or their partners)
  • Balancing work and caring responsibilities, e.g., from trying to work while also meeting the needs of children and others unable to attend their usual activities or care arrangements
  • Concern for vulnerable family members/friends, e.g., from concerns they might get the virus or increased emotional stress at not being able to visit and assist elderly relatives
  • Change to activities that support good mental health, e.g., reduced exercise because of the closure of gyms, reduced holidays because of travel limitations, and reduced social interactions

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