Pandemic pressures increase risk of stress

Stress Awareness Week marks an opportunity to take stock of the added pressures many are facing due to COVID-19, and what we can do to manage them. CIPD Policy Adviser, Rachel Suff explores this topic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the whole range of daily pressures that many people face both at home and work. This Stress Awareness Week marks an important opportunity to take stock of the risks that individuals and organisations are facing during these turbulent times, and explore how employers and HR can manage them.

From fears about catching the virus to concerns about job security, the pandemic has had a number of knock-on effects that are all likely to increase the pressure and stress people are under. Many people have also had to adjust to new work demands and/or working arrangements, such as working from home full-time, working on the frontline as a key worker, or being furloughed. 

What is ‘stress’?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related stress as: ‘an adverse reaction to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on someone at work.’

It’s a term that’s used quite loosely, but at its worst stress can produce serious physical symptoms such as headaches, an upset stomach, other aches or pains, insomnia and a low immune system.  As the HSE says, stress ‘is not an illness but it can make you ill’. Longer term, it can also tip into burnout or a diagnosed mental health condition like anxiety or depression.

Experience of stress varies from person to person. What one individual may think is positive pressure (and no one wants to be bored and unchallenged at work), another may perceive as excessive pressure, or the final straw. This is understandable because every individual has different circumstances, personalities, life experiences and responsibilities which influence how they react to pressure.

Work-related stress was on the increase before the crisis

Nearly two-fifths (37%) of organisations saw an increase in stress-related absence over the last year, according to the CIPD’s annual health and wellbeing at work report (published March 2020).

While the proportion of employers taking steps to reduce stress also increased, a third (33%) of those who reported a rise in stress-related absence weren’t taking any steps to address it. 

The most common causes of stress at work is heavy workloads and management style. Both highlight the important role of line managers. How they behave, and whether or not their management style is open, collaborative, empathetic and positive can directly impact the stress levels within their team.

Taking a preventative approach to managing stress is key

To take a preventative approach, organisations need to identify the main risks to people’s mental well-being. One way of doing this is by conducting stress risk audits and using them to develop effective action plans. Part of this strategy should involve equipping line managers with the knowledge and skills to manage stress in their teams and provide effective support.

The CIPD’s short practical guide for managers outlines six steps every manager can do to reduce stress and help their team thrive. These include:

  • Reviewing workloads, duties and responsibilities to ensure deadlines and goals are realistic.
  • Reflecting on management style to consider whether people are treated as individuals, receive constructive feedback, and any conflict is handled decisively.
  • Leading by example to promote healthy working habits. This includes taking time to rest and recharge after busy periods and striving to achieve a good work/life balance.

Looking out for HR

We know HR is playing a central role in helping to lead their organisation’s response to COVID-19. Our #HRtogether campaign showed how hard people professionals were working to keep people safe and businesses running during the height of the pandemic’s first wave.

Many months on, and as the pandemic continues, people professionals need to dig deep to help shore up organisational resilience and continue to support employee wellbeing. Carefully balancing the needs of the organisation with those of individuals has typically been a challenge for the profession. The current crisis is likely to have intensified this complexity for practitioners.

The pandemic means many HR professionals will be responsible for implementing cost reduction programmes and/or redundancies, as well as bearing the weight of responsibility for people’s wellbeing during an economic recession.

Given the high demands placed on people professionals, there is a risk that their own wellbeing can fall between the cracks. The extraordinary pressures, combined with a likely lack of control over the business situation and therefore the people strategy, can produce a perfect storm for stress.

People professionals need to be mindful of the risks to their own wellbeing and alert to any signs that day-to-day pressures – whether at home or at work, or both – is tipping into unmanageable stress.

Resources for members and people professionals

The CIPD is working hard to keep a vast range of resources up to date to help employers and members to effectively respond to COVID-19. These resources, along with professional support and opportunities for peer networking in our communities should help HR professionals to reduce some of the risks associated with work-related stress.

Members can also access our new Wellbeing offering, which includes helpline services and other resources to support CIPD members with their own health and wellbeing. No one should feel that stress is a sign of weakness – all the evidence shows that stress is a widespread phenomenon in today’s workplace that needs addressing by employers and by individuals.

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