Austen Advisory Blog 02

COVID-19 Workplace Stress on the Rise – What can leaders do?

There is no doubt the COVID-19 crisis continues to create stress -- but is it such a bad thing? Some might say it has triggered the motivation needed to reinvent business models and affect positive change. Guest writer, Rachel Austen of Austen Advisory, considers the business case for tackling stress and shares some practical insights into what companies should be doing.

Should business leaders do something about stress beyond just the rhetoric?

To a certain degree, some stress and pressure is helpful - it uplifts performance, energises people and brings teams together. The problem comes with undue stress, which not only is very detrimental to an employee’s mental health and wellbeing but also places businesses at great risk. If left unaddressed, stress accumulates and can lead to serious lapses in judgement, toxic behaviours and in extreme cases to suicide. These impacts are all hugely damaging to a company’s brand.


In the current COVID-19 crisis, the negative impact of stress is evidenced by Profile’s Working in APAC survey conducted earlier this year, with 45% of respondents admitting their mental health has been adversely affected. This figure is likely to be higher in reality, due to some respondents being unaware of the early warning signs of declining mental health. Also, from the survey, 43% of people said their levels of stress had increased due to their leadership's response to the pandemic.


Aside from the potential risks to organisations mentioned above, plenty of studies show us stress limits productivity and increases staff turnover and employee healthcare costs. AIA’s 2019 Healthiest Workplace Survey results for APAC show that 67.5 days are lost per employee per year through stress-related absenteeism and ‘presenteeism’ – i.e. when employees are physically there but not mentally present. 


In the context of COVID-19, many companies talk about the need to reinvent, collaborate and be agile – all of which require employees to have a calm, flexible state of mind. Stress is, therefore, the biggest impediment and management must take action now.

Exhibit 1: The business case for taking action on stress
Exhibit 1: The business case for taking action on stress

What can leaders do?

A big issue leaders need to address is isolation – employees feeling less connected to others given the more remote working arrangements that many companies still have in place. Leaders should focus on:  


Tailored support:

Stress is personal and everyone’s experience will be different. Leaders need to be attuned to and show empathy for an individual's circumstances. Checking in with them individually to ask how they are feeling. Being vigilant for changes in their behaviour such as being late for meetings, deadlines or becoming irritable and negative. Then exploring this sensitively, with open questions rather than jumping to conclusions.


Meaningful connections:

Employees crave quality connections (not quantity). Creating opportunities that enable employees to share their challenges and ‘feel heard’ is key. Examples are peer-group collaborations/support, virtual coffees, building in more time at the beginning and end of team meetings for informal discussion, perhaps sharing 'the best thing that happened last week' or doing a pet introduction. Lightening the mood is a good stress reliever. 


Awareness of available support: 

Communicating the support channels available and having all these resources in a central, accessible place. Ensuring all managers know what their company has in place so they can signpost them to support (managers are NOT therapists). Many managers lack awareness of what support is in place, therefore avoid conversations completely.


Will employees be open in disclosing their struggles? How can this be overcome?

Many fear job loss and whilst there is now some more openness about discussing mental health, there is still a big stigma. Furthermore, many people lack awareness of the degree of impact stress is having on wellbeing or the language to specifically describe their feelings. 


There is an emerging trend in using scientific tools, like AURA (Austen Advisory’s proprietary tool), to measure stress and provide proper insight into the symptoms with personal and management reporting. The AURA tool is completed by confidential personal questionnaires, providing a ‘safer’ channel for disclosure and is a platform for focused individual, team and organisational action planning.  Most importantly, it enables a proactive and preventative approach to managing risk from stress – it is far easier to address issues early before they become more complex problems. 


An example of a recent implementation of this in APAC is at BBC Studios, where a resilience analysis programme was undertaken to gain insight into the impact of stress on the workforce, pinpoint issues and put in place personal, team and management action plans. This provided a common language, addressed the need to localise interventions to their seven different markets and made their business model work much better without employees being under undue stress. You can read a full case study here.



  • Stress is dangerous and, like COVID-19, is a silent enemy that can creep up on us. 

  • Stress will be a big barrier for achieving business goals:  Would you hire people who are negative, cynical, lack energy, think rigidly, emotionally volatile and prone to making irrational decisions? 

  • Employers of choice will be those who are known to place wellbeing at their core and take early, focused action on stress. 


Rachel Austen, C.Psychol. MBPsS. MHKPS. MSc. 

Director, Austen Advisory Limited

Are you/ your team on the road to resilience or the path to burnout? Click here for a short video to understand more.


Rachel is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist with over 15 years of experience working for market leaders, providing advice to many large organisations in addressing their people issues. She previously was an Associate Director at Mercer Hong Kong and Principal consultant at SHL in Hong Kong & Singapore. She now runs her own firm which has a specialisation in stress and resilience and uses a proprietary tool entitled AURA.  She has over 9 years' experience working with businesses across Asia spanning a wide range of industries.


Rachel Austen, Director, Austen Advisory Limited


June 2020