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Can We Limit the Impact Pandemic Stress Has on Workplace Performance?

Sometimes, employees just need to know that their company cares about their wellbeing.

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The signs accrue slowly. Group chats that once hummed with good-natured conversation and project discussion devolve into silence. Employees who had prioritized their work-life balance before the pandemic begin to veer into exhaustion as the lines between their professional obligations and personal lives blur. Formerly friendly coworkers snap at each other or coexist in icy silence. Team productivity dips; efficiency drops. 

Given any one of these problems, a leader might think that they have a company culture problem on their hands — and that might be the case. However, before you launch into an initiative to reinvent your managerial approach, rearrange your teams, and rewrite your policies, you should ask yourself: Have you tried addressing your team’s COVID stresses yet?

Addressing the Psychological Impact of COVID-19 at Work

COVID-19 has been hard on all of us. One recent survey conducted by psychology researchers at Vanderbilt University found that most participants reported experiencing stressful disruptions to their everyday lives. They struggled to obtain necessary supplies, needed to change or cancel their travel plans, were often isolated from their close friends and family friends, experienced job loss or reduced hours, and suffered financial strain. 

The impact that these stressors can have on workers cannot be understated. Even before the pandemic demanded a rewrite of our usual routines, financial concerns, and high-stress levels significantly impacted employee performance and wellbeing. 

Research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) indicates that financial stresses correlate to a significant 34 percent increase in absenteeism and tardiness. Another study conducted by Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research complements these findings, noting that financial strain can cause employees to miss nearly twice as many workdays as their unstressed peers. 

However, stress doesn’t need to be financially-rooted to have a detrimental effect on worker performance. As researchers for a 2018 study on the matter write: “high level stress results in low productivity, increased absenteeism and […] problems like alcoholism, drug abuse, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.” The writers further indicate that stress can also lead to higher rates of job dissatisfaction. 

There’s no doubt that these stresses can contribute to low office morale, poor productivity, and, perhaps most importantly, burnout. Recent data published by the online employment tool, Monster, indicates that over two-thirds (69 percent) of employees are currently experiencing burnout symptoms while working remotely due to the coronavirus. 

These are alarming numbers. The emotional and physical harm to employees is evident — but the impact on employers shouldn’t be overlooked, either. 

The Business Cost of Stress

Workplace stress exacts a $500 billion annual toll on the U.S. economy, and roughly 550 million workdays are lost due to work stress each year. The American Psychological Association (APA) further notes that burned-out employees are more than twice (2.6 times) as likely to be actively seeking a different job, 63 percent more likely to take a sick day, and 23 percent more likely to visit the emergency room. 

All of this makes one thing abundantly clear: protecting employees from burnout, even if that burnout is not explicitly caused by their work, is in the company’s favor. 

If company leaders want to maintain high levels of performance and cohesive teamwork during the stresses of a pandemic, they need to go above and beyond to demonstrate their support, empathy, and flexibility for overstressed employees. If they can do so, they will encourage better work performance, boost team morale, and improve employee health and engagement. 

But how can they accomplish this? The answer seems almost too simple — outreach.

Past research indicates that increasing supervisor support can moderate the impact of role overload and work stress on burned-out employees. If business leaders can make outreach and support staples of their pandemic leadership approach, they may be able to lessen the amount of work- and health-damaging stress that employees experience. 

Don’t know how to go about this process? Here are a few tips. 

First, Check In With Your Employees.

You have the power to alleviate any unnecessary work-related stresses that your team members might have. For example, while you might not be planning to conduct layoffs or restrict team hours, your employees may live in fear of such an event happening. Without clear communication of the risks, financial stress can compound unnecessarily. 

As one writer for CNBC reports: “Despite work burnout, the majority (59%) are taking less time off than they usually would, and 42% of those still working from home are not planning to take any time off to decompress [even though] most people return to work from even a short amount of time off feeling more productive and refreshed.

The reasoning behind this seemingly counterintuitive decision, reporters note, is that employees feel they need to work while they still have a job, and that working hard will convince their employers of their value should layoffs become a possibility. 

Be transparent about your plans, and alleviate any unnecessary worries. Then, check in with your employees to make sure they are taking the time to stay healthy and productive. 

Next, Ensure That Support Measures Are In Place.

Don’t let overwork add to the stress that your employees are already handling! Thoroughly audit your team’s capacity, and make a note of any workers who are overburdened with assignments. Remind your team of any support structures you might already have in place and, if necessary, consider hiring an additional person to take some of the weight. 

However, if you’re running lean because of the pandemic and can’t afford to hire extra help, try talking with your team to develop a work-sharing strategy that will allow team members to cover for each other when overloading occurs. Even a conversation can help defray work stress.

Finally, Make Yourself Available for Conversation.

Sometimes, employees just need to know that their company cares about their wellbeing. Maintain open communication channels and remind employees that you are available for conversation if they need to discuss working concerns or request flexibilities. Above all else, make sure that managers check in on employees’ mental health as often as they do their at-work performance. 

In times like these, leaders need to support their employees — because without them, businesses couldn’t even dream of achieving the level of success that they do. 

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