Anxiety in the Workplace

By Gina Miller

It would be difficult to find a news forum today that is not dominated by headlines about the latest news on the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19). But while Europe and North America are struggling to come to grips with quarantine measures and government emergency measures, Hongkongers are rapidly – and sadly – becoming old hands at dealing with emergencies.

This does not mean Hong Kong’s reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak has been an easy ride. Employers and employees have suffered fears of layoffs, of contracting the disease, of putting food on the table and of taking care of their children and their elder’s health in a crowded environment where mass transit – a jewel in Hong Kong’s metropolitan crown – suddenly has all the charms of a spittoon.

If that sounds like the overblown reaction of hysterics, think again. Many Hongkongers have been deeply frightened by the COVID-19 threat.

Dr Hui Lung Kit, a psychiatric specialist with offices in Central, has found that many of the patients he has seen who were dealing with COVID-19 fears were under significant stress that had led (in some cases) to obsessive-compulsive type behaviours.

“This was especially the case after Chinese New Year, when many local people went to Mainland China and came back to greater fears of infection and pandemic,” he said. “They suffered physical symptoms such as sleep loss from worrying at night-time, and by day, they started suffering avoidance behaviour. They were scared to touch things, they were scared of going out.”

“Their emotions override their thinking,” said Dr Hui, and the effects on their home and work lives are devastating.

What’s a business to do?

Felicity McRobb, the founder of McRobb Consulting, a Hong Kong-based company specializing in individual and team performance at the executive level, says that as a result of the city’s efforts to manage the COVID-19 emergency, and to protect the people, Hong Kong will likely make meaningful changes to the way it does business.

“This is a time when organizations can demonstrate what they stand for; are their values attractive wall decorations, or are the values at the basis of decision making? Is the company leadership solely focused on profit (recognizing that profit is a fundamental for sustainability), or are they investing in their people for the long haul, betting on the power of people and culture to drive competitive advantage in the long term.”

And what kind of action is required to achieve this?

Dr Hui says that employee fears need to be addressed at all levels: from the most basic concerns about personal safety on up. Employee worries are not their fault: and their worry and anxiety in understandable. “The first thing a company should do is make certain that the overall environment is clean and safe, and be transparent and tell staff that cleaning will take place ‘x’ times a day. Cleaning washrooms, codes on wearing face masks, all efforts made to ensure contagion is low risk need to be transparent, adequate, and resourceful. And you have to tell staff
what is happening.”

As evidence shows that good mental health improves the immune system Dr Hui also suggests that employers “…allow and sponsor support teams within staff. Provide communications channels to allow mutual social and emotional support to help improve staff well being.”

For now, Hongkongers need to move through the current crisis with their senses intact. Too much fear and anxiety can push people into an exhausted state of apathy, says Dr Hui.

“The hysterical panic that the COVID-19 outbreak has caused for many has another drawback: you become exhausted. In the first week, you are very anxious, but the other extreme makes you de-sansitised and then your awareness is reduced and you no longer take appropriate measures for safety and you ignore the news and go about your normal life and no longer take appropriate care,” says Dr Hui.

Fact-based communications are vital to supporting employees during the COVID-19 disruption, agrees McRobb. Communicating changes people can expect to see and clear timeframes are critical. For example, saying “On x date, we will move to smart working from home. The offices will be closed to all non-essential staff”, is a coherent message. Frequent and clear communication in these times of unpredictability is essential to reducing employee stress and helping them focus on their work.

“In times of crisis, hearsay draws inflammatory conclusions and in the absence of facts and clear direction from senior leadership, people act in accordance with their often mis-guided conclusions. Communications should come from the senior-most level to demonstrate the importance to the organization and the seriousness with which it is being taken. Given the rate of change and the spread of the virus throughout the world, there can be no let-up of the regular cadence of communicating and disseminating information,” says McRobb.

Positive response

As COVID-19 continues to impact the globe, Hong Kong is currently in the pole position to take the lead on dealing with managing work under emergency conditions. At present, both Hong Kong and Singapore are being praised for their ability to manage the outbreak, particularly in comparison to Western countries that are now reeling under quarantine conditions. In the West, dealing with the outbreak is paramount; in Hong Kong, establishing the maintenance of a healthy society and continuity of services is the highest priority and is already underway.

“What I’ve noticed,” says McRobb, “is that in Hong Kong – on my WhatsApp chat groups for instance – people are reaching out to each other to see what other companies are doing with regards to working from home, travel policies, quarantine, wearing of masks, new hygiene practices and the myriad of questions arising from a situation no company has dealt with before. It has been deeply heartening to witness how everyone has been helping each other, even from competing firms. There is a real sense of all being in this together.”

“The first thing that employees want to know is ‘Am I going to be ok? Can I pay my bills? Am I safe in the office? How do I work while my children are out of school?’ Companies have put in place measures that allow staff to work in a fashion that supports the changing needs of their families, allowing people to work from home and not making demands that people come back to the office if they do not feel safe or comfortable to do so. Businesses have taken an enormous hit to revenue, in some cases, more than 50%-90% down on last year’s performance but wherever they can, company leaders have been committed to keeping people employed to alleviate fears about their own and their colleagues’ personal circumstances. Unfortunately, there are many small businesses in Hong Kong have not been able to stay afloat and have closed their doors.”

The future at work

“Globally, this is the most expansive experiment in working from home ever undertaken, or endured! Every company will have its own case study, and time will tell if these new work practices will result in us being more or less productive.” says McRobb. “If the future trajectory of work is people being mobile and device connected then this is certainly an opportunity to measure its efficacy. We are witnessing people having the chance to choose when to get their work done, often outside of ‘regular’ work hours. If this is the direction we are heading this is an opportunity to accelerate that change. As we learn more about what people need in order to be productive – devices, architectures that reliably build communication and relationships while allowing for autonomy and innovation – we are better prepared for change. In this regard, the future of work is happening now.”