Dr. Nicola McCaffrey (DClinPsy.) Clinical Psychologist


23.March 2021 Dr. Nicola McCaffrey

Since its onset in China in the autumn of 2019, the worldwide outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has had a tremendous impact on people's lives, health, and livelihood. The pandemic has undoubtedly brought with it a great many challenges and downsides for us all, but one of the upsides has been that we have been generally more open and upfront about our mental health. More and more of us are leaving the discomfort and shame of speaking up about our psychological wellbeing behind us and we are opening up about how we are feeling and what we need. Conversations are being had in the news, online and on social media. It is inspiring to see so many people stepping into vulnerability in this arena. But is this wave also moving through the workplace? And are businesses doing enough to tackle workplace stress?

Workplace Stress Prior to COVID 19
Although perhaps we are more inclined to think about mental health as having a personal impact it clearly has a significant impact in the professional arena of our lives too. How we feel is an important element in how we work. Employees report that typical stressors at work include deadlines, interpersonal relationships, workload and conflicts. Moreover, statistics indicate that workplace stress accounts for just under half of all sick days taken (according to HSE 2019/20 statistics). Not only does mental health significantly impact an employers presence in the workplace it also undermines employee productivity, motivation and morale and can even lead to burnout. The other key thing to note about mental health is that it doesn’t just impact the individual — every team will feel it too. Team cohesion and productivity are impacted by each individual team member and those who are suffering from stress can have a significantly detrimental effect on the team as a whole. In addition employees are generally hesitant to discuss their mental health with their employers for fear doing so could negatively impact their career opportunities. So for those of you out there who are trying to grow or build a business, particularly in these times, reducing workplace stress and taking proactive steps to safeguard the mental health of your employees is not only a way to optimise individual productivity and reduce total sick day totals, but it will also make it easier for staff to find their own intrinsic energy and motivation and ultimately perform to the best of their ability.

Workplace Stress Meets the Pandemic
COVID-19 has changed the way we all work. It has however affected our professions and industries very differently. Some of us have not stopped physically going to work, whilst others have been working remotely for over a year now. No matter which professional situation we have found ourselves in over the last twelve months, working during the pandemic has added stress to our daily lives. We have all had to learn to deal with professional and financial vulnerabilities as the economy lurches in response to the pandemic. In addition to the stress we experienced previously, the pandemic has further increased fatigue and has affected our ability to focus, plan and make decisions. At the same time, each one of us learning to adapt and adhere to any precautionary measures our employer has introduced to face this crisis which has disrupted our familiar routines and processes. Although job stress is not a new phenomenon in 2020, workplace stress reached new and unprecedented levels. Research in this area indicates that levels of self-reported work related stress have been on the increase over the last five years, jumping by around 70%, with nearly half of this rise occurring in the last twelve months (according to HSE statistics). It would appear however that the pandemic has created new sources of job-related stress including concerns about income and job loss, fear of being exposed to the virus, and factors related to working from home such as being unable to separate personal life from work, social isolation and an “always on” mentality. COVID-19 has exacerbated and compounded what the already widespread and existing challenges of a largely unaddressed mental health problem in the workplace. A worrying trend that is only set to accelerate over the next year, and beyond.

Addressing Psychological Distress in the Workplace During a Pandemic
With a resolution to the COVID-19 pandemic still distant, how can workplaces help their employees to cope right now? What can employers do to care for the mental health of their employees and reduce workplace stress? There are many stressors employers cannot fix for their employees right now but there are steps that can be taken not only to reduce stressors but also to build resilience in the workforce.

Now more than ever, leaders have to be transparent with employees. When times are tough, approaching your employees with honesty, transparency, and vulnerability will build a foundation of trust and create openness within the team. When leaders are more vulnerable about their experiences and own coping skills, employees will feel more comfortable expressing their own fears and concerns. Through empathy and honestly you give your employees permission to be open and honest about their own experiences too. Promoting this kind of environment will remove any perceived social barriers within the workplace that exist and encourage employees to open up about what they’re thinking and feeling. Leaders can normalise discussions of stress and mental health using both formal and informal means. You can make the most of small opportunities to check in with your employees as well as organise more formal spaces for discussions around mental health and the coping skills that can help increase resiliency.

Worldwide three major psychological triggers have been shown to increase stress: uncertainty, loss of control and lack of information. As a leader look for opportunities to reduce these stressors. Where you can give as much information as you can to your employees. If confidentiality prevents you from sharing information then say so. Explain that you will share what you can and update your employees when any new information becomes available. Encourage an open forum for asking questions and the sharing of information. Not only will this enable people to share resources around coping and feel informed of the situation, but it will also enable you as a leader to address any myths or misinformation that is being shared within your team. Furthermore try to give employees control when and where possible. If there is no room for choosing the content of what the employee has to focus on can you give them room to make choices around when and where they do this work?

Everyone’s situation is unique and can change dramatically from one day to the next. Each employee has their own unique circumstances that they are currently trying to cope with. Some are isolated and lonely at home, whilst others are trying their best to balance home-schooling and work deadlines. Make it a priority to check in with your employees individually so you can better understand the challenges that they are personally facing at this time. Although much of what they are facing is out of your control, as a leader you can be creative and offer some support or adaptations. Reduce stigma about requesting reasonable accommodations and take the initiative to ask your employees what they need from you as a leader at this time.

The simple routines and rituals that keep us well are often the ones that we give up at times of stress and uncertainty. Here are a few basic steps that we can all take to manage our own workplace stress

Plan your day the night before to reduce “cognitive load”
Do your most mentally demanding tasks when you are most productive. This is not the same for everyone! Some of us are most productive in the morning hours, whilst others find that we feel more switched on after traditional office hours have ended. Check in with yourself throughout the day and bring awareness to your energy levels and concentration.
Remember to take short breaks and time for lunch. It is very easy, especially if we are working online, to jump from one meeting to the next without room to breathe or look up from the screen. Breaks are important as they enhance our energy, productivity and focus (although this can at times feel counter intuitive!). Take control of your diary and block off time throughout the day to take restorative breaks.
Make time for some form of exercise every day. If you are experiencing stress every day then you need to remember to move your body every day. Stress is both a physical and psychological experience so it is important we move any stress through our bodies and don’t just let it build up throughout the week.
Getting enough sleep! Sleep is one of the panaceas of emotional resilience and regulation. Sleep helps us to stay calm, find solutions and regulate our feelings. Remember that you need to give yourself an eight and a half hour sleep opportunity to enjoy your restorative eight hours of sleep each night. This means that if you are getting up at 7:00 then you need to be in bed by 22:30.

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