On 14 February 2021, the Government announced that Auckland would again move to COVID-19 Alert Level 3 with the rest of the country moving to Alert Level 2, until midnight on Wednesday.  This unexpected announcement has caused anxiety and stress levels to soar as we face the potential for another extended lockdown.

The renewed disruption, isolation, and pressure to work in changing environments creates considerable stress and anxiety for employers and employees alike.  In this article, we discuss workplace stress, with a focus on COVID-19, and outline some strategies and tips for employers to navigate their organisation during this turbulent time.

Workplace Stress

Workplace stress is something that will inevitably affect almost all employees during their lifetime, especially in the current climate.  The reasons for workplace stress are wide-ranging, including:

  • Extensive workloads;
  • Short deadlines;
  • Financial insecurity;
  • Job insecurity;
  • Conflict at home and/or the workplace;
  • Familial obligations;
  • Loss of support networks; and
  • Anxiety about returning to the workplace after an extended period.

Given the directive for some businesses, schools, and institutions to close, many of these factors will combine to elevate stress levels for workers.  Likewise, many parents will now have to juggle looking after their children while having to continue to meet work deadlines.

Conflict in the home may also heighten stress for employees, making them unable to concentrate.  It may also be difficult for employees to “switch off”, given that their home and work environment are now the same.

Overall, there are innumerable reasons for, and ways in which stress will manifest itself in this new environment.  Employers ought to be aware of how COVID-19’s presence may affect its employees, and how they may assist in alleviating such effects.

An Employer’s Obligations

Employers have an obligation under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of its workers.  This includes managing risks to prevent employees suffering psychological harm, which may eventuate from bullying, harassment, and overworking.

This obligation also extends to employees who are working from home.  As such, employers ought to carefully assess the circumstances of their employees, and whether they may be required to vary an employee’s working procedures to comply with this duty.

For some employers, this may mean implementing more flexible working arrangements to accommodate – for example, an employee’s additional duties at home, childcare duties, or a difficult home environment.  Such new arrangements may encompass reduced/increased hours, or flexible working hours.  Unreasonably high expectations are likely to compound the already high levels of stress that employees have during this time.  Employers may also agree with their employees for the employee to use some of their entitlements, such as annual leave.

Importantly, the standard employment law obligations continue to apply to all employment relationships.  Employers and employees ought to discuss any concerns, requests for new arrangements, and matters relating leave/pay in good faith at all times.  Employers may not reduce an employees’ hours or pay without prior consent.

Combatting the Effects of Workplace Stress

Employers ought to regularly, and effectively communicate with staff about COVID-19, and the impact on the workplace.  Transparency is key, as it alleviates the stress of the unknown.  Understandably, employers may not know all the answers and it is okay to inform your employees of this.

Employers ought to demonstrate compassionate leadership – remind employees that there is support available.  Employers may wish to provide employees with resources which may assist them during this hard time, for example the workplace’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), other mental well-being services, or even financial support services.

Since the first wave of COVID-19 in New Zealand, many large corporates have utilised the Kiwi-focused wellbeing application Mentemia.  Created by former All Black and mental health advocate Sir John Kirwan, tech entrepreneur Adam Clark, and a team of medical advisers, the online application is designed to help Kiwis cope and thrive through COVID-19, and other life stressors.  The application is free to all New Zealanders.

We remind employers to consider whether they are eligible to apply for any of the Government’s COVID-19 related financial support schemes.  A summary of the various schemes can be found here.  These include the COVID-19 Leave Support Scheme, which is available for employers to help pay their employees who need to self-isolate, but can’t work from home.  There is also the COVID-19 Short-Term Absence Payment, to assist businesses pay workers who cannot work from home while awaiting a COVID-19 test result.

We also encourage employers to seek information from official COVID-19 sources, such as Government briefings and the Ministry of Health’s website, for reliable COVID-19 guidance and updates.