The Hidden Cost of Pandemic Stress

Anytime we think about lost productivity, or absenteeism, or a lack of engagement, etc., the tendency is to look at the workplace environment itself. For example, are people happy with their supervisors? Do they feel trusted? Are they recognized for the achievements and rewarded accordingly? All of those things matter a great deal.

There is another area, however, that is easily overlooked, and that is what is known as life events.

You’ll often hear people speak of the grand plans they had for their careers, and how life “got in the way”. No doubt, you’ve experienced this yourself.

What are these life events? What causes them? And how do they impact employee performance?


Holmes and Rahe

In the 1960s, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe developed a stress scale that consisted of 43 life events. They wanted to see what, if any, relationship there was between these events and illness. Thousands of people were tested and, as it turned out, there was a strong relationship between them.

Each event was assigned a numerical value. The higher the number, the more serious the event in terms of the health of the individual who experienced it. The higher the accumulated score from a combination of events, the greater the stress and the higher the risk of illness for that person.

For example, the death of a spouse scores the highest at 100. The second one on the list is a divorce, which is 73. The third one is marital separation, which is 65. Interestingly, the fourth highest life event is personal illness at 53. Just getting sick yourself has a stress value that makes you prone to getting sick again.

The period of time over which these events are evaluated is one year.

Total scores of less than 150, according to Holmes and Rahe, meant that there was no risk of illness. In other words, all of us face difficulties in our lives and often more than one at a time, but usually it takes quite a number of them to make us ill, and that’s because we’ve learned to cope with much of what life throws at us.

Sometimes, however, life can be a bit overwhelming and so the risk of illness increases to moderate when your total score falls between 150-299. It’s worth noting that this level of risk is a mere 30% less than the very risky stress levels that occur when total scores are 300 or higher.


Life event clusters

As you know from personal experience, life events rarely occur in isolation. They nearly always are accompanied by other events, which means that your stress levels can rise quickly.

What might happen in a typical year?

There might be a major change in the health or behavior of a family member (44) such that that person has to move in with you (39). This places something of a strain on your finances (38), which may lead to more disagreements with your spouse or partner (35). In just those four events, your total score is up to 156 - high enough to put you within the moderate range for illness.

In this scenario, it could be that you’d also have problems with your in-laws (29), especially if they felt that you weren’t giving the person who moved in with you the care that they thought you should.

It could be that in order to accommodate this additional person, you had to move (20) to a bigger house (25), and that meant that you now you also had a bigger mortgage (31). And with another person in the family, you also had to change your personal habits (24), and how you exercised (19).

If you’ve been doing the math, then you know that you’re over 300 and at risk of illness. And all of this was caused simply because someone in your family became unwell enough that they had to move in with you.


A more serious scenario

You will know, however, that there has been a much more serious scenario; one that has affected everyone. It’s COVID. Nearly everyone knows someone else who has become sick with it, or has even died, and you may be among those who personally have either had the virus.

If someone in your family has died in the past 12 months, then that event alone scores 63, and if you’ve had a major illness or injury, regardless of the cause, then that adds another 53. If someone in your family got COVID, then that adds 44, as you’ve seen above, but the death of a close friend adds 37.

To all of this, you have to add the fact that you may be working from home (20), have had to find a different line of work (36), which has meant a change in your responsibilities (29). Maybe your spouse has had to get a job or has lost one (26) because of the lockdowns or other restrictions. And because your boss is experiencing more stress than usual, you’ve experiencing difficulties with them (23).

At this point, your score is well over 300, and we still haven’t considered how you’ve been affected by changes in the type or amount of recreation (19), changes in church activities (19), changes in social activities (18), the need to take out a loan or extend your overdraft (17), disruption in your sleep habits (16), and the inability to gather with other family members (15) which collectively adds another 104 to your total score.

All of this demonstrates the amount of stress that you’ve probably experienced since the pandemic began. The thing is that because there are so many other people who have had a similar experience, it’s easy to dismiss these stressors as of little importance. But the truth is that they’re having a far more serious effect on your health, and the health of your employees than you realize. And that means that you have to adopt strategies to minimize their impact, not just on your life, but also on the lives of your employees.


Employee performance

You can be forgiven for thinking that as we’re all in this together that the stresses brought on by the virus and the Government’s reaction to it aren’t that important, but as you’ve seen, you couldn’t be more wrong. What this brief discussion has shown is why employee performance has been affected to the extent it has.

At the beginning of the pandemic, most people just kept calm and carried on; but over time the stress of these life events has accumulated. As people have felt more and more stressed as a result, their performance has been affected.

In the beginning, productivity probably increased. Part of that was due to the novelty of working from home and the efforts that people put forth to make do. And if there weren’t a lot of other restrictions in place, those improvements would’ve continued.

But people are becoming weary of all this. A decline in employee performance is just around the corner.

Indeed, you may find that absenteeism increases as the health of your employees begins to deteriorate.


What does this mean for you as a manager?

Principally, it means that you’re going to have to actively look for ways to mitigate the impact of these stressful life events.

That won’t be easy, especially as you have your own stress to deal with from the same events. But if you truly believe that you’re “in this together,” then in every way possible, you have to act like it. It’s no good making such a claim, and then following policies that apply only to you and no one else or breaking the rules while expecting others to follow them.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

You must also recognize that the longer the lockdowns and restrictions on normal living go on, the worse it’ll get.

We didn’t look at all of the items in that survey. There are others that could well come into play the longer life remains abnormal.


A way forward

There’s a natural tendency to look back over the previous 12 months in order to appreciate the extent of the stress that various life events have imposed on people, and that’s fine for a start; but the power of this survey lies in its use as a planning tool.

If you ask yourself “what if” this event, or that event, or some other event in the survey occurs in the lives of your employees, then you can anticipate their stress levels.


Why does that matter?

Because right now, you can look for ways to mitigate the impact those events might have. You can engage your employees to learn what they’d like you to do so that they experience less stress.

For instance, you could look for ways to restore to them their previous job responsibilities (29), or allow them to return to their previous work (36), or let them back into the office (20), or make a special effort to improve your relationships with them (23). Just those four simple things can take more than 100 points off their total score, which could be the difference between them experiencing a stress-induced illness or not.

And think of the stress you could remove from your own life by simply reducing it in the lives of your employees.

The virus has changed the workplace dramatically and quite possibly forever in some respects; but anything you can do to reduce the stress that these changes have brought onto your employees is likely to improve their physical, mental, and emotional health which ultimately will make them more productive.



Want to know more about the hidden cost of pandemic stress? Contact me here.


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