Workplace Stress and Coronavirus: These Are the Impacts

A stressed worker at home

Everything turned upside down in early 2020 as workplaces closed or moved online to combat the spread of coronavirus. The normal stressors of everyday life – and work life – multiplied in ways that have impacted workers and entire industries for much longer than anyone may have originally anticipated. The overall level of stress varies by how much disruption a company and its employees are experiencing. Where some thrive, others fall behind. It is estimated that for 69% of workers, this is the most stressful time in their careers. Let’s explore some of the reasons why.


Pace of Change

Consulting firm McKinsey & Company looked at the acceleration of new digital trends in how we live and work, suggesting that we have technologically advanced a “decade in days.” Videoconferencing saw a 20-fold increase in three months as more and more remote workers met with their teams online. Telemedicine appointments exploded ten times over in a span of 15 days as consumers sought to keep long-scheduled appointments and get help for new concerns. E-commerce, which was already experiencing record numbers, saw online delivery leap ahead ten years in expected volume in just eight weeks.


Industry Upheaval

Restaurants have been shuttered. Some retailers have gone bankrupt, while others surpassed all sales records. The travel and hospitality industries have been decimated. Feeling trapped in a seemingly hopeless situation has led some workers to thoughts of giving up entirely. It might be easier to quit and start over, intimates a 23-year career veteran interviewed by the Washington Post.

Another working for a government agency shared her anxiety of being in a highly controlled environment, where each day brings new mandates and priorities. Healthcare workers have their own kind of stress, dealing with life and death scenarios at a volume and pace never experienced before. Meanwhile, essential workers continue to put themselves in danger simply by going to their jobs each day.


Uncertainties Around Consumer Behavior

As industries evolve, so does consumer psychology. Not only due to COVID-19, but also the economic stressors in play. PriceWaterhouse Coopers studied the changes in consumer behavior since the pandemic began. Not only are people staying home and buying online, they are also focusing their spending on essential items. While this creates opportunity for employees in certain sectors, it also creates pressure in trying to keep up with increasing demand. People in manufacturing, supply chain, warehousing and distribution, and transportation are working double-time to meet goals for delivery and performance. Which of these behaviors stick with consumers over the long haul remains unknown.


Management Challenges

A study from the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) indicated that 84 percent of workers blame poorly trained managers for creating workplace stress. Employees think that their managers could be better communicators (41 percent), offer more training and development (38 percent), delegate more effectively (37 percent), facilitate a more positive and inclusive culture (35 percent), and improve team performance (35 percent).

All these management challenges have just become greater with the move to remote work. Global staffing firm Randstad published a white paper with tips for managers who are suddenly tasked with leading virtual teams. The number one piece of advice is to “lead with calmness.” This can be especially challenging when one is managing their own stress and feeling unsure of what is next for their job, their team, and the company at large.

Other strategies include practicing “radical transparency,” leveraging the leadership style that works best for the situation and setting clear expectations for deadlines and assignments.


Communication and Trust

The emergence of coronavirus took businesses off guard. There was such a high level of uncertainty at the beginning that it was difficult for leadership to communicate with precision. Things were changing at a rapid pace, with confusion and uncertainty. Communications teams had to learn to how to message effectively in a time of crisis.

A Workforce magazine article, “Employee Communication How-To’s During a Crisis,” states the importance of avoiding the spread of disinformation. However, just sharing facts is not enough. Leaders should also show empathy for their employees who are experiencing a full range of negative emotions, from anxiety to trauma. Letting people know that the company has compassion during difficult times can help to ease fears.


Cluttered Workspaces

For many professionals, their homes have become their offices and perhaps also schools for their children. Clutter has become a way of life, and it can have negative consequences on anxiety levels. Neuroimaging has shown that the brain reacts positively to neat workspaces that are designed for productivity.

Working at the kitchen table or in the bedroom can become overwhelming. Numerous distractions make it harder to focus and easier to procrastinate. Once focus is lost, the work at hand becomes secondary to dealing with the distraction. At this point, thoughts can spiral. Why am I washing dishes when I should be working? When can I return to the office? Will the kids ever go back to school? I need to get this project done. I can’t do this for much longer.


Exacerbation of Existing Conditions

For workers prone to anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other behavioral health conditions, coronavirus stress can tip the balance. It can become harder to concentrate and make decisions. Sleep may be disrupted or fitful. Unhealthy lifestyle habits can take hold. All of which negatively impacts work performance, which in turn, creates additional worry. A cycle of mental struggle can easily envelop these employees.

Looking again at the Randstad white paper, “Leading Remotely in Times of Uncertainty,” another suggested technique for supporting workers is to “create safe spaces.” The goal is to give people the “psychological safety to express their feelings” without fear of judgement. Managers should listen attentively yet avoid trying to remedy the individual’s situation.

There is no quick fix for any of these workplace stressors. The lasting impacts will be with us for years. People with the skills to assess and address employee and consumer behavior and motivation will rise to the top in organizations seeking to embrace change and come out better on the other side.

Learn why when you visit USC’s Online Master of Science in Applied Psychology.



HR Executive
McKinsey & Company
Washington Post
SHRM Study
Randstad White Paper
Workspace Clutter