Last reviewed 25 May 2020

Amid all the uncertainties and disruption caused by COVID-19, an awareness of how your team is coping is all-important. Laura King looks at what managers can do to reduce stress for themselves and employees.

The coronavirus or COVID-19 has caused significant disruption to our day-to-day lives. Not surprisingly, this brings with it a host of additional stresses and anxieties.

Stress is defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”, and can be caused by a lack of control over a situation, uncertainty, change, a lack of information, or too much to do.

It is fair to say that the impacts of COVID-19 press all of these buttons.

How work can cause stress

When considering workplaces, the HSE outlines six areas of work design that have the potential to cause stress.

  1. Demand, eg setting deadlines that are not possible to meet.

  2. Control, eg having no say in how tasks should be done.

  3. Support, eg assuming that there are no issues if no one raises any concerns.

  4. Role, eg not being clear about expectations.

  5. Relationships, eg passing pressures onto the team or not resolving issues quickly.

  6. Change, eg not communicating change until the last minute or not doing so clearly.

Looking at these, it is clear that at the top of any coronavirus-related stresses is people’s home life, eg worry about family members or having to entertain small children, the current situation also has the potential to cause additional workplace stress on employees.

For example:

  • reduced staffing levels due to staff self-isolating will add to workloads

  • it is very likely that the organisation is rapidly changing as it adopts new processes in response to Government advice, eg social distancing measures or changes in priorities

  • staff might not feel they have enough information or support to do the job properly.

When considering that many will already be experiencing a high level of change and anxiety, actively managing work-related stress levels will be critical to keeping staff safe and well.

Stress and health and safety legislation

Workplace stress is covered by employers’ duties under health and safety legislation. However, companies not only have a legal duty to protect against undue stress, there is also a moral duty to check that their people are coping; and it goes without saying that protecting employees from a deterioration of their mental health will help them fulfil their duties and manage over the long term.

To provide a basis for managing stress within the team, managers could carry out a stress risk assessment or revisit existing ones. Your topic Stress at Work outlines employers’ responsibilities and details how to conduct a risk assessment.

How can employers reduce stress during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Although many employees will be facing additional stresses in their home life, managers are not expected to resolve each individual’s personal issues. However, they can be aware of a team member’s situation and be mindful of how work demands might create a level of stress that is unmanageable.

Actions managers could take to help reduce pressures caused by the current situation around COVID-19 include:

  • establishing regular, open communication with staff

  • rotating job roles through high and low-stress activities

  • allowing flexible working or adjusting work patterns so that those who have to care for others (eg children currently out of school) are able to juggle both home and work life

  • using a buddy system (like that employed when people are lone working) to provide additional support

  • listening to concerns and suggestions from team members (both in terms of operational suggestions and personal requests) and letting them know if any feedback is acted on

  • making sure staff are aware of any mental health support services or employee assistance programmes provided by the organisation

  • encouraging breaks, and leading by example

  • maintaining a sense of purpose, calm and normality wherever possible — when people face a lot of uncertainty, having a clear direction and some certainty can be reassuring

  • helping staff stay positive by recognising the situation, acknowledging what staff are managing to achieve and providing encouragement

  • being mindful of those who have had to change tasks — consider teaming them up with a more experienced member of staff and check that they feel they have had enough training.

It is also worth remembering that managers are not going to be immune from the impact of stress any more than their team. Here, leadership from top levels of the organisation will be important to set expectations. If there is a caring and understanding mentality at board level, then this will filter down.

Measures that senior management can take include setting fair and consistent HR policies, supporting and providing positive, honest and regular communication, taking action to keep their employees safe, and re-appraising priorities and targets. Senior managers can also use the HSE’s six areas of work design (demand, control, support, etc) to guide how they approach the situation.

Staff working from home

Most people who are office based will currently be working from home. With this come additional pressures, such as the following.

  • Isolation — homeworking can be blissfully quiet, but when people are not used to working away from the workplace, or live on their own, peaceful solitude can slip into loneliness.

  • Distractions — people need a continuous period of time in which to work. This is not always understood by others, who might not appreciate the impact of seemingly small distractions. Employees trying to manage home schooling might find this aspect of home working particularly difficult.

  • A lack of structure — an absence of boundaries about when to stop and start working can be hard for people to manage at first. They may also feel like they have to be available all the time to prove that they are working. Some may also work well into the night which can cause disruption to sleep due to not having enough time to “switch off” and too much blue light exposure.

Managers should consider the following actions to tackle these stressors.

  • Help team members establish a routine by agreeing a clear work schedule that fits in with their needs, and keeping this under review.

  • Be understanding of the difficulties faced by team members; “business as usual” is unlikely to be an option for everyone.

  • Agree with team members how to best communicate, bearing in mind individual requirements as well as your needs as a manager — for teams usually working together in an office, a daily conference call is a good starting point.

  • Talk team members through finding a suitable place to work that allows them to avoid distractions. This could be included as part of any display screen equipment check.

  • Encourage team members to stay connected.