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Workplace Stress in COVID-19 – Can Any Good Come from This

Amanda Clarke, Director, Profile Asia

As the challenges and uncertainties from COVID-19 continue, workplace stress is on the rise. In a recent survey of more than 2,700 business leaders across APAC, the majority of respondents agreed their mental health, or that of their colleagues, had been negatively impacted. Conducted by Profile Search & Selection (“Profile”), the survey , entitled “COVID-19 Impact on Mental Health in APAC”, provided insights on many of the critical challenges organisations face.

Interviewed in Q2 2020, nearly half (45%) of the respondents felt that COVID-19 had adversely affected their mental health, and 60% felt that it had negatively impacted their colleagues’ mental health.

Interestingly, those suffering the most seemed to be based in Hong Kong (58% compared to 39% in Australia, 41% in China and 44% in Singapore). Perhaps Hong Kong, a city already oping with issues related to mental wellbeing stemming from workplace stress, has been further impacted by recent political uncertainties.

Percentage of respondents who indicated COVID-19 adversely affected their own mental health:

Pushing accountability to those at the top of the corporate tree and understanding that they are responsible for communicating messages of change, the survey also asked respondents if their leadership team’s response to the pandemic had affected their stress levels. While 42% felt no change, 43% suffered from additional stress. These results may well be reflective of the ongoing uncertainties, and the outcome of employees being asked to take pay cuts or unpaid leave (35% of those surveyed), or even staff redundancies and some business closures (20%).

In the midst of Hong Kong’s third wave of COVID-19, a study by the Mental Health Association of Hong Kong found that among 801 employees interviewed across the city, 87% showed symptoms of stress, with 43% reporting signs of anxiety disorders. Not only are the numbers alarmingly high, but they point to a deepening issue as the year progresses.

With job insecurities and personal challenges mounting, the looming question is how can we tackle this, and what response measures have we, and can we, put into place. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, many companies have adjusted their working arrangements to fit the HKSAR Government’s social distancing requirements. But are these measures supporting individuals’ mental health, and helping to reduce workplace stress?

Looking back over the past six months, 80% of those surveyed by Profile said their company had all, or at last some, of their staff working remotely or from home. While this has benefited many, others have struggled to work in isolation or with several people in the house, and no appropriate space to work in.

Surveyed employees were also asked how productive they have felt since working from home. While nearly a third said they were less productive, 64% said they were either more productive, or just as productive as being in the office.

Unfortunately, nearly 60% said they have been working longer hours. Despite this, over half said they felt their colleagues were taking advantage of their flexible arrangements or not fulfilling their responsibilities.

Thus, it is clear that working from home and flexible working have had a positive impact on many individuals, but there is still some way to go in terms of learning to trust and effectively manage staff remotely. Furthermore, as remote working continues, leaders will need to better communicate changes and company directives to their teams, to keep them on an even keel.

If there is one positive to emerge from COVID-19, it is that people are more comfortable talking to their colleagues about mental health (65% of those surveyed, up from 59% from Profile’s Working in APAC survey in January 2020) and a number of firms have either upgraded or put into place an employee assistance programme. Furthermore, firms are looking at new and creative ways to improve employee wellbeing – these have included subscriptions to meditation apps, online gym sessions and reduced working hours/compressed work weeks, demonstrating proactive measures taken to combat the current issues.

Looking ahead, there are strong signs that as organisations work through the pandemic, employees will want the option to continue working remotely and flexibly, and to be able to control when, where and how they work – in other words, be truly “agile”. For this to succeed, managers and employers will not only need to implicitly trust their staff, but also learn to rate their performance in a whole new way.

In doing so, employers are recommended to invest time and money in ensuring their technology supports remote working. Moreover, such advances will need to support real time interaction and video/virtual connectivity among staff, to maintain and build rapport across business units. Employers should also carefully consider workplace setup at home, to make sure remote working can offer employees a safe and productive environment.

Organisations who prioritise the health, safety and wellbeing of their staff will not only help improve their productivity, but in the longer term, will better attract and retain them. Prospective candidates will focus on companies with supportive environments – and in turn those perceived to be the most reliable in the face of challenges, will become the go-to employers of choice.

As a result, COVID-19 will not only change the way people work, but will redefine what employees look for in an organisation. As the post-COVID-19 workforce seek out firms who can provide a healthy and happy workplace, they may even prioritise this over a higher salary offered by a more traditional organisation. In fact, we have already seen candidates make these career choices, so it won’t be long before these requirements become the norm for job seekers.

One thing is for sure – however we decide to move forward in the new normal, it is undeniably a once in a lifetime opportunity to reimagine what work means, and be part of the foundations of a very different world. While this may seem overwhelming at times, perhaps with the right support, there is the chance to channel that stress into enhanced productivity, and ultimately better working lives.

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