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COVID-19 updates

Keeping chins up

COVID-19 complicates directors' responsibility for health and safety by introducing new work-related stresses to staff, management – and directors themselves.

By Institute of Directors
8 Apr 2020
read time
3 min to read

Lost income, a sudden move to working from home or being required to work in an environment of potential exposure to COVID-19 are all taking their toll on the mental health of New Zealand workers.

A survey by Kantar at the end of March found that apprehension about the mental health of family and friends was high for 43% of New Zealanders, a more widespread concern than falling ill themselves (34%).

The crisis impacts on each person in a different way. Some may be enjoying the lockdown as a respite from work pressures. Others may face increasing stress around health and income issues, or simply adjusting to life solely in their "bubble", says Clinical Psychologist Gaynor Parkin.

The founder and CEO of wellbeing advisory service Umbrella says the mental health impacts should not be underestimated.

"People are finding it really tough because financially they are under pressure with their work or their businesses," Parkin says. 

"Generally, this is increasing people's stress."

Stress can be felt as general anxiety or just feeling unsettled. People may become irritable, angry or sad. Motivation can suffer. Even daily activities may seem pointless or unusually difficult.

"These reactions are not unusual," Parkin says."It would be normal to be finding it tough right now. It is important to acknowledge that this is hard, while also looking for the positive experiences in this lockdown."

Nine ways to support your wellbeing

  1. Acknowledge your anxiety
  2. Separate what is in your control from what is not
  3. Ration your news intake
  4. Foster a challenge rather than a threat mindset
  5. Challenge yourself to stay in the present
  6. Keep your sense of humour
  7. Be kind
  8. Stay connected and reach out if you need more support.

Adapted from  See their website for more detailed recommendations.

Role of directors

Directors have responsibilities for mental wellbeing in their organisations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 but the extent of those responsibilities has yet to be clarified in the courts, says health and safety expert Allister Rose.

Rose, consultant with Comply Health and Safety, says Worksafe NZ has yet to take a prosecution under the Act.

"It is not something that is thoroughly understood in New Zealand, in part because Worksafe has not undertaken any prosecutions. This means it can be difficult for directors to be sure where their responsibilities begin and end," Rose says.

Nevertheless, the law is clear that health and safety "isn’t just physical", Rose says.

"It does cover mental health as well, and it's important that directors understand this."

For example, Rose says, with many employees currently working from home there is a new risk they may feel isolated or unsupported and that this may impact their mental wellbeing.

"In this instance an organisation needs to develop flexible policies that can fit a range of different personality types. My son in London has little communication with his work at all. He is happy just to keep doing his work. That would not work for me – I need to interact with people."

Directors should ask how their organisations are meeting the needs of different personality types and encourage management to maintain open lines of communication with all staff.

"The board may also have to look at the budget for health and safety and see if it is fit for present circumstances."

Even where boards feel that the events impacting their organisations are out of their control, they still have responsibilities and should be prepared to show that they are seeking to discharge those responsibilities, Rose says.

"The law defines it as taking 'reasonably practicable' steps. You should be able to show you have undertaken a risk assessment and put in place appropriate policies based on that."

He recommends directors review Worksafe's "Health isn’t just physical" update (at or the international guidance in ISO 45001 Occupational Health and Safety for ideas on how to manage mental health in the context of their own organisations.

"Worksafe's guidance can help boards understand their responsibilities. ISO 4001 is a good standard that provides a pathway for businesses to comply with their health and safety responsibilities. And it goes without saying that directors also need to make sure they are looking after themselves."

Mental health support tools

The government has launched a website of mental health resources developed by All Right?, a wellbeing organisation based in Canterbury. Its top tips include:

  • Find ways to connect
  • Find ways to be active
  • Find ways to keep learning
  • Stick to your routine (or start a new one)
  • Limit the amount of news you follow.

For more information see

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