Business leaders are approaching a ‘stress cliff’ that could be the detriment of workplace culture for years to come


Performance Strategies founder Rupert Bryce.

While much of the recent focus has been on the economic cliff businesses are facing, all signs are pointing to an impending ‘stress cliff’ that has the potential to set businesses up for years of toxic management and culture.

With a recent Australian study reporting rates of stress, anxiety and depression have risen by up to 21%, it is clear urgent action is needed to prevent workers from experiencing poor mental health and businesses from embedding damaging culture.

As we move out of the initial alarm phase of this crisis and into a prolonged phase of downturn, we’re entering an extremely high-risk period in terms of stress and mental health.

We’re now entering what’s known as the ‘fourth wave shock’ — the time when psychic injury and longer-term community, societal and economic impacts are felt — and this could last for up to two years.

The toll on Australian businesses

During periods of crisis, the potential for damage to businesses is significant, with managers and leaders at especially high risk of burnout.

When leaders hit their ‘stress peaks’, the most common result is total dysfunction, and it’s usually a ‘flip of a coin’ scenario.

Leaders tend to go one of two ways: they either internalise and turn to personally destructive behaviour, or they externalise and act out by doing things like controlling, blaming and yelling.

And while many people think that we’ll see mass turnover in leadership during difficult times, it’s actually the opposite. With fewer opportunities in the market, more people are staying put — and this is where the risk lies in terms of a toxic culture becoming embedded within businesses.

It’s difficult not to draw a comparison between the current crisis and the GFC, and while there are some similarities in terms of the economic fallout, I think leaders are being hit harder this time around.

Unlike during the GFC where leaders could see the bottom and work towards a fairly predictable economic recovery, the continued uncertainty and the complexity of this crisis — with both health and economic fronts — significantly compounds the stress.

It’s fair to say we learned lessons from the GFC, but I think the current crisis will test our leaders on an entirely different level.

While the last crisis hit the hip pocket hard, all things considered, people bounced back fairly quickly. The crisis was economic and there wasn’t a huge focus on health and wellbeing.

But in the current situation, it’s essential to keep our organisations and leaders healthy — as high performing businesses will be integral in boosting our economy during recovery.

It’s not all doom and gloom…

While the threat is significant, it’s certainly not all doom and gloom, and with more education and recognition of mental health challenges, we can ‘catch out’ these issues before they take a significant hold.

Some of the most simple tactics are the most effective, and self-awareness goes a long way towards recognising potential issues and flagging the need to seek support.

For example, look for changing behaviours, habits and patterns.

‘Why am I eating too much or drinking?’

‘Why am I acting out towards my family?’

‘Why aren’t my staff responding?’

And the same goes if you notice changes in a friend, family member or colleague.

While some people are born with more resilience and better stress management capabilities than others, what I’ve learnt through a career in psychology and coaching is that you can train for these skills.

Building stress management and resilience capabilities and putting in the hard work to support your teams will not only help through this current crisis, but serve organisations in the long run. There’s clear and compelling evidence that organisations who maintain wellbeing see real business impacts — they’re more productive, more efficient and have lower levels of employee turnover.

And amid all this uncertainty, only one thing is certain. This will not be the last ‘shock’ we face in our working lives.

There will be other viruses, climate crises, more civil unrest, political dramas and interference, and more geopolitical tensions, and when they arrive on our doorstep, we’ll fall back on these very valuable skills.

NOW READ: “Intrinsically linked”: COVID-19 financial stress causing mental health challenges for small business owners

NOW READ: Five ways to bolster staff morale during challenging times


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