During the thick of the 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns economists were anticipating that unemployment would soar. It seemed impossible that New Zealand would be facing labour shortages within a year and a half. Whether by good management or luck, or a mix of both, the economy has rebounded well.

The problem many employers now face is not an absence of business opportunities, but the difficulty in recruiting and retaining enough staff to function.

There are reports this is beginning to take a toll on people’s mental health. With Omicron now on our door step it is certain to compound the issues created by shortages in labour. Many employers will have to face not only managing their own stress, but the stress of their staff.

These issues are affecting wide parts of the economy. Dairy NZ have said recent surveys indicated that the dairy sector was short of 2000 to 4000 workers. The absence of these staff can mean that existing workers are required to work an additional two-and-a-half hours on top of what was already a long working day.

Ben De’Ath, managing director at The Regions, a company that supports the dairy industry with migrant workers, has said the result of understaffed farms is “catastrophic for the mental wellbeing of farmers and their families, marriage well-being and staff mental health”.

Labour shortages are similarly affecting the horticulture sector. Yummy Fruit Company general manager Paul Paynter has described a grim mood in the horticulture sector. “[People have] been asked to do the job they’ve always done, and more, with fewer resources. It’s a challenge, and it gets them down in terms of mental health.”

Other industries which have recently reported labour shortages include the construction sector, the health sector, hospitality, district councils, hairdressers and the list goes on.

In some industries, a shortage in staff will simply limit the outputs of the business and bottom lines will be affected. But in most industries, a shortage in staff will lead businesses to push their management and workers further to compensate for shortfalls.

The problem is only going to get worse. When Omicron fully arrives, we will see an unprecedented rise in the number of Covid-19 infections in New Zealand. More employees will be required to isolate. While working from home may be an option for some, many staff will be unable to work due to illness or the nature of their work preventing them from doing so.

On top of the already heightened stress levels in many businesses, New Zealand could face a further epidemic of burnout.

So what are employers’ obligations to staff in these circumstances and what can be done to prepare?

It is well established now that workplace stress is a risk to health and safety. As with all risks to health and safety, an employer must take reasonably practicable steps to eliminate or mitigate these risks.

In a perfect world, the solution would be to recruit new staff. But in the thick of a pandemic this may not be possible for many businesses.

Managing the expectations of staff and clients may go a long way to addressing the risks of workplace stress and burnout. Many workers will step up to absorb the increased workloads, but management should ensure staff know they are not expected to do it all and immediately.

Where staff shortages are affecting a business, it may help to communicate early to stakeholders that this is the case, and where possible, renegotiate timeframes and deadlines.

The advantage of Covid-19 is that we are all going through this together, and many people will be understanding that there are limitations on what businesses can achieve during this time. Knowing the situation early, and avoiding surprises, can go a long way to avoid or minimise people’s upset.

Even where timeframes are unavoidable, reassuring staff that they will be supported when delays occur can go a long way to supporting their mental health. Continually pushing staff harder carries the risk of resignation, and in a favourable job market for employees, this may be an option for many employees.

With the likely increase in absences due to Omicron, some businesses may be able to plan in advance how work will be allocated, or how operations can be managed, to reduce strain on a business. However, trying to anticipate every possible scenario which might play out can be stressful in itself. Having flexibility to deal with events as they occur can go a long way to both managing issues when they arise, and in a way which minimises stress.

Ultimately, there are limits to what employers can do to manage stress in the circumstances. The Court of Appeal has confirmed that “an employer does not guarantee to cocoon employees from stress and upset”. Some stress is inevitable during these times, but all employers should consider what steps can be taken to minimise it.

Cullen –The Employment Law Firm is now a part of Mahony Horner Lawyers.   David Burton the author of this article is a Principal of Mahony Horner Lawyers.  He can be contacted at david.burton@mhlaw.co.nz