How to manage workplace stress in the midst of COVID-19

Tips and tricks to best manage stress and mental health in the workplace

How to manage workplace stress in the midst of COVID-19
Mental health is a big concern in Canadian workplaces.

Mental health concerns have been on the rise in Canada, especially in the workplace. Employees are becoming more and more aware of employee well-being.

With many employees working from home, workplace stressors are now in peoples’ homes as the boundaries between personal and professional life become blurred. And of course, for those working on-site, there are major concerns around COVID-19 transmission and keeping up to date with ever-changing guidelines.

During these unprecedented times, numerous studies have shown that Canadians are experience record levels of mental health issues. In fact, it would be somewhat bizarre to not experience some form of stress or anxiety when the world is going through such a seismic shift.

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How workplace stress can affect your organization
Writing for, Shawn Singh, CEO of Vistagen Therapeutics, Inc., says that though workplace stress and anxiety is not a new phenomenon, the pandemic has exacerbated these stressors. He notes, for example, a rise in the prescription of anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants. These come with a number of side-effects and health concerns.

Numerous healthcare professionals have also noted a rise in both absenteeism and presenteeism: on one hand, employees missing out on work due to mental health issues, which can result in lost time injury (LTI) and delays. On the other hand, presenteeism can be an issue – especially during this pandemic. Some employees may feel as if they are not able to miss work due to, for example, financial reasons. This can potentially exacerbate already existing issues, both mental and physical.

To deal with higher levels of level, employees may be smoking more, drinking more coffee and, more seriously, engaging in alcohol or substance abuse.

READ MORE: 20 warning signs of compassion fatigue

Common causes of stress at work
Singh notes that some common causes of stress at work, even outside of the pandemic, can include deadlines, inter-personal conflicts in the workplace, and staff management.

The American Psychological Association (APA) says that other common sources of stress at work can include low salaries, excessive workloads, few opportunities for growth and advancement, work that isn’t engagement or stimulating, lack of support, and not having enough control over job-related decisions.

With the pandemic, employees may feel additional stress due to having to implement COVID-19 guidelines such as physical distancing or mask wearing. Additional stressors may include worries over finances, fear of catching the virus and worries over the health and wellbeing of friends and family.

For those employees working from home, they may encur even an additional level of anxiety and stress. For example, for parents having to work and provide additional childcare due to school closures. Conversely, teleworkers who live alone may be feeling isolated which could lead to issues such as depression.

READ MORE: 5 Key things to know about mental health in the workplace

What is stress management?
The Mayo Clinic says that “Stress management gives you a range of tools to reset your alarm system. It can help your mind and body adapt (resilience). Without it, your body might always be on high alert.”

Indeed, stress management can be an invaluable tool for employers and employees to help them manage both ordinary stress and anxiety in the workplace, and current exceptional stressors which are linked to the pandemic.

Know and track your stressors
The first step to best managing stress is to understand what makes you tick, and understanding what your stress triggers are. Once these have been identified, it will be much easier to keep track and take proactive steps to relieve and combat stress, anxiety and even depression.

Here are a few things for employees to focus on when it comes to stress management. Employers concerned with employee well-being may want to share these tips and tricks with employees (putting up literature in the break room, sharing through email or Skype, etc.).

READ MORE: Workplace ergonomics: Four key things to consider

1. Take time to relax and practice self-care
Speaking to COS last year, Dr. Geoff Soloway, a mindfulness expert and one of the founders of MindWell-U, said that mindfulness is a tool that can help with employee well-being: “Another way to look at mindfulness is as a quality of self-awareness, an ability to regulate our emotions, which is important in all of our interactions.”

This can also be an important tool for employees to help them to take time out and relax. Aside from practicing mindfulness, workers should be carving breaks out in the day – as they would in the workplace – to disconnect, relax and practice self-care. For employers, this could be by – for example – putting together short yoga sessions via Skype or Zoom for their employees.

2. Create boundaries
The APA says that “in today’s digital world, it’s easy to feel pressure to be available 24 hours a day. Establish some work-life boundaries for yourself. That might mean making a rule not to check email from home in the evening, or not answering the phone during dinner.”

Especially for those working from home, boundaries may be difficult to build as the home office is also the kitchen, living room or even bedroom. With the normal rhythm of life upended, employees now have to create their own boundaries and learn how to switch off.

3. Do progressive muscle relaxation
As suggested above, yoga sessions may be an interesting medium for employers to help workers relax and de-stress. In addition, employees may want to call on a certified ergonomist to make sure that workers are adapting their work stations – both at home and on-site – to their needs.

Lisa Schuiteboer-Shuler, Kensington’s certified Ergonomic Expert and Ergonomic Category Manager, recently told COS: “People don’t have to spend all this money on fancy desks, but it’s about having equipment that is adjustable.”

4. Get support
Ultimately, though these suggestions are a good start, some employees may need more.

Fears caused by the pandemic may be pushing employees to have negative thoughts, social phobias, increased heart rate, etc. Simple stress can (hopefully) be manageable, but more serious health problems such as panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder and depression need to dealt with by a professional.

These legitimate health issues need to be addressed by a healthcare professional and can be treated with group or individual therapy and, potentially, medication.

Employees need to make sure that they are supporting their workers during these distressing times by making sure that their health plan is up to scratch, keeping in constant communication with at-risk workers and even simply lending a supportive ear.