Moping, hoping and coping: How employees and employers have responded to the stress of the pandemic

How have New Zealanders been dealing with the stress of the pandemic, what have they learned and what have organisations done to help them cope? By Roy Smollan.

 

As we have emerged from a return to stricter alert levels, somewhat chastened by the re-occurrence of Covid-19, we are still aware that we are extraordinarily lucky to live in a country that has one of the best records of the number of Covid cases, with few deaths and a relatively minor resurgence.

In Australia, the state of Victoria, together with the rest of the country, had also been doing well until the rapid rise of cases in July. Many variations have been seen in other countries, or parts of them. The stress of the pandemic is partly related to fear of catching the disease, by ourselves and those close to us, the prospects (and reality) of deaths, the never-ending bad news in the media, and the restrictions imposed by lockdown and other government responses. 

At work, extra stress may come from exposure to Covid, the possibility of losing our jobs and businesses, the rigours of working from home, with many people in crowded accommodation with inadequate privacy, workstations and access to technology.

So, how have people in New Zealand been dealing with the stress, what have they learned from recent experience and how will they deal with current events relating to the pandemic? What have organisations done to help them cope?

Some employees have managed well, others very poorly. Research I conducted several years ago shows that while personality may be a factor in coping with stressful organisational change, coping is usually situationally-focused.

It is simplistic to categorise people since the ways in which we deal with stress, and the effectiveness of our coping strategies, vary as events occur and new information is received.

However, let us examine just three types – and you may recognise yourself in all three at some time over the past few months, and right now too.

First there are the mopers. As lockdown started, then lengthened or returned, dark moods deepened. Emotions are contagious. Those trying to keep psychologically afloat may be drowning in a sea of despair as the numbers in the media ratchet up on a daily basis, and the talking heads and scribes presage tougher times ahead.

 Boredom, too, takes its toll. There has been considerable evidence of heightened anxiety, helplessness, hopeless and powerlessness.

When the promised re-opening of businesses, sport, entertainment and religious gatherings initially provided relief from the pressure of crowded houses and apartments, and the prospect of a return to work signalled better days, some of the mopers briefly turned into hopers.

When the second spike struck in many cities and countries, including New Zealand, doom and gloom were palpable. There was no future, or it was a poor one. When would this nightmare end, if ever?

The hopers may initially have believed that “it won’t happen here”. Some may have been sustained by a spirit of unrealistic optimism or lulled by politicians and sections of the media into believing that “we have everything under control.”

The problem in many countries was initially regarded as temporary. The government (at various levels) had the skills, resources and willpower (force in some cases) to manage the crisis.

Medical technology had never been greater. Together with information and communication technology, it would make sure that the flu of a hundred years ago would not have the same deathly impact.

 In New Zealand, our recent complacency was understandable, despite warnings that it was unwise. The doubters (mopers) lacked faith. Resilience, grit, hardiness and the “right attitude” were needed. The resurgence of cases and fatalities in other countries, and the second lockdown in the Auckland region (together with the re-imposition of Level 2 elsewhere), turned some of the hopers, positive and admirable in spirit as they were, into mopers.

Who are the copers? They have elements that define the hopers.

They remain positive but are cautiously optimistic, discounting the facile statements of some politicians and media pundits.

Crucially, they also believe that they have the skills, technical and psychological, to deal with the problems they are facing. They have been innovative, both in dealing with complex work issues and domestic arrangements.

 They have a sense of humour; we have been entertained by the celebrities, and the “ordinary” men and women who have made the videos and cartoons that make us laugh, reminded us of our humanity and of our will to survive (as others in past crises have done).

There is the 100-year old indomitable Captain Tom in England and the countless others who have raised funds, run soup kitchens, worked harder or volunteered more often, comforted their families and neighbours. At work, they have supported others.

In New Zealand now, as in other countries, the copers are again being tested by new cases, further restrictions and continuing uncertainty. The copers assert, “We managed before, we can manage again.”

What have organisations done to deal with the stress of their employees?

Some have offered higher than ever levels of support to their staff, tangible, relational and psychological. Examples of the first are PPE for those who need it and extra tech for the home “office”.

To address the relational and psychological impacts many have:

  • Used video meetings aimed at maintaining social inclusion.
  • Paid for Employee Assistance Programme consultations.
  • Sent  messages of comfort from team leaders and top management (some accompanied by notices of redundancies and offers of support in job-hunting).
  • Run webinars on how to cope with stress or provided links to organisations that provide coping resources.

Data that colleagues and I have collected from two companies in New Zealand shows that, overall, employees appreciated both tangible and psychological forms of support during lockdown and the later return to work.

A few employees were more cynical, criticising their employers for mixed messages (for example on possible redundancies) and inadequate tech support.

 In contrast to those trying hard to support their employees, some organisations have abandoned them, laid them off and failed to protect them from harm.

For some individuals and companies, the survival of the fittest, and the richest, is seen as the only viable coping strategy.

Life has seldom appeared to be more challenging on a global scale, despite wars, holocausts, terrorism, poverty, discrimination, climate damage and other environmental disasters. We may all have experienced periods of being mopers, hopers and copers.

With stress at an all-time high, we need to be strong-willed, hard-headed, soft-hearted and effective copers.

 Employers need to play their part in helping staff cope.  Not only does this show they care about their employees, it also aids in maintaining productivity, staff retention and morale.     

Dr Roy Smollan is a Senior Lecturer in Management at the Auckland University of Technology. He teaches and researches stress and resilience at work and organisational change.

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