Work stress and Covid-19

Blog posts

14 Jan 2021

Tejal FataniaSenior Fellow in Leadership and Management at the University of Warwick

During the Covid-19 crisis we will be opening up our blogs to guest contributors. These blogs are intended to broaden the debate and discussion on how public policy, employers and civil society can respond.  Needless to say, the views will be those of the authors themselves rather than of IES.  If you’d like to contribute a blog, then please email IES comms lead, Steve O'Rourke

About the author 

Tejal Fatania is a Senior Fellow in Leadership and Management at WMG, The University of Warwick. Tejal has over 20 years’ experience in senior HR and management consultancy roles gained in leading global organisations including EY, Capgemini and Eon.


The Covid-19 pandemic continues to challenge organisations and individuals within them. Organisations have had to continually react to changing events and leaders have had to often make rapid decisions. Operational and people management practice has inevitably been impacted and has had to adjust. Intensive remote working during the pandemic has resulted in some home workers experiencing stress. Some workers who have been able to go back to their traditional work environments have also experienced stress.

Potential work stressors experienced

Rapid change: Rapid change has been experienced by many people which can be unsettling. This has included the mass reversion to home working within a very short period of time, and little notice, for reasons of business continuity. Some organisations have rapidly changed internal processes and operating procedures - which people have had to get to grips with very quickly. For some organisations, change which would have normally been implemented over a period of years, has been executed within a period of months.

Overload: Some people have experienced increased workload during the pandemic. Even though some workers have been furloughed, others have had to cope with increased work demands placed upon them. Some workers have had to cover for sick colleagues. Others have had to perform different/additional duties during the pandemic in order to keep their organisations functioning.

Lack of control: Feeling not being in control can result in stress. Some workers have felt that new duties and situations have been thrust upon them with little or no notice. Others have had to make adjustments as a result of colleagues and family members self-isolating or even recovering from Covid-19. Consequently, individuals have had to react to situations and some have felt that they have had little or no control over what has been happening to them.

Technostress: This refers to the difficulty to cope with and adjust to the demands of information technology. Rapid remote working has resulted in the more pronounced use of technology and the use of new software and platforms e.g. Zoom, Microsoft Teams etc. Whilst some people have adjusted to this relatively well, others have found this difficult to cope with.

Cyber incivility: The greater use of e-mail and technology platforms has resulted in some people experiencing undesirable online behaviour from colleagues which can be referred to as “cyber-incivility”. Innuendo and sarcasm have also been part of this cyber incivility for some people.

Bullying and harassment: There has been some evidence suggesting that bullying and harassment at work has been a factor with greater remote working during the pandemic. Some people have felt pressurised into agreeing to perform certain tasks and duties by superiors and peers. Others have experienced inappropriate unsolicited remarks during videoconferences.

Job insecurity: Some people have been concerned about their own job security and about the overall financial security of the families given the economic implications of Covid-19. People have witnessed friends being furloughed or even being made redundant, and are therefore concerned about their own job security and about how they would cope with potential job loss.

What can employers do?

Work allocation:  Leaders and managers have a duty of care for their employees. The careful allocation of work and new responsibilities may seem obvious but the reality may be different. When faced with a rapidly changing environment and unpredictable demands, busy managers, despite their best intensions, may find it difficult to devote sufficient time to ensure that this done appropriately and is effective.

Regular breaks: Regular breaks enable staff to remove themselves from a stressful situation. Encouraging staff to take breaks may again appear to be seemingly obvious in relation to stress reduction. However, some employees when experiencing greater stress, for example, due to high workload, may be more inclined to just continue to work through and not take appropriate and regular breaks. Line managers can regularly remind their team members not to neglect taking breaks and the importance of this for their health and wellbeing.

Greater individual communication: Communication can easily suffer particularly when managers are faced with trying to manage large teams online. In particular, individual and more personal communication can be neglected in favour of mass communication. The personal touch to communication may help team members in a number of ways including feeling valued; more time being spent discussing work issues which are more personal to them etc. Importantly, this can help people feel more supported and valued.

Training: Organisations can provide greater support in the form of training. This could include online tools, which may be helpful to staff, and greater individual coaching.

Exercise: Encouraging staff to take regular exercise can be effective in helping people in terms of stress. Whilst some organisations will have greater resources in order to help their staff more in this area, through subsidised gym membership for example, other organisations without such resources can simply encourage employees to consider exercise as part of their health and well-being activities.

Work stress continues to be a real live issue during the Covid-19 pandemic. A number of sources of stress exist which can be potentially experienced by staff. Whilst employers can instigate measures in order to minimise negative staff impacts, people will need to feel that their employer is doing all it can to support them during this difficult time. This is easier said than done.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.