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Fear: The Greatest Obstacle To The Return To Work

Physical accommodations can and will be made in the workplace, but leadership's greater challenge is creating the psychological and emotional stability employees need to feel safe.

Anticipation is growing for the U.S. to restart the economy and for businesses to reopen. Despite Americans’ overwhelming desire to get back to work, however, there is one major obstacle to getting back to normal—fear.

A recent CBS News poll showed that only 44% of workers are comfortable going to a workplace outside of their own homes. That means more than half of all employees lack the confidence to return to their offices or worksites. Employers and their HR teams need to be proactive, strategic and thoughtful in their approach in order to create cultures of certainty, confidence and safety amidst all this uncertainty and fear.

As part of their return-to-work plans, many companies are initially focusing on the physical aspects of the workplace by reconfiguring workspaces to allow more distance between employees. Temperature screenings will likely become the norm, especially for larger companies. Sneeze guards and other protective “barriers” are being installed to additionally protect employees from customers and vendors. Sanitizer dispensers will be located throughout the workplace, along with signs reminding employees to regularly wash their hands and avoid touching their faces.

The true challenge, however, is creating psychological and emotional stability in the workplace. Leadership needs to recognize that many employees have been traumatized or significantly burdened by this COVID-19 ordeal and those wounds will be slow to heal, especially with prospects of a widely available, effective vaccine still more than a year away.

An important first step in this healing process is flexibility, starting with PTO policies and productivity requirements. PTO and leave policies should be reviewed and updated to effectively promote the idea of not coming to work when sick. Employees should not feel guilty when taking time off either to care for their own health or that of a loved one. Nor should they be penalized if they don’t immediately return to pre-virus work schedules or productivity standards.

Other tips for making employees feel comfortable in this new work era include:

• Involve employees in the process of creating safe workspaces. We all feel that we’ve lost some control over our own lives as a result of the novel coronavirus. Help to restore a sense of empowerment by encouraging active participation in changes. Consider the formation of an employee safety task force that can work collaboratively with HR to implement new policies and procedures.

• Enhance communications with a focus on transparency. Provide frequent updates on what the company is doing to keep employees safe. Set expectations and encourage two-way communication regarding concerns and results.

• Train supervisors on the warning signs of depression and anxiety and how to approach employees who seem to be suffering. Your frontline managers are key in this task because they work more closely with employees and have hopefully built strong relationships with them. They need to understand what stress “looks like”, as it is different for everyone. Conflict resolution skills will be more critical as employees may be more irritable or detached as a result of stress.

• Encourage daily check-ins between supervisors and their teams. This is not a time to solely focus on what is getting done but, rather, on how people are doing. Employees will understandably still be distracted by the constant streaming of bad news. They will be worried about their own health and that of others. Some will still be struggling with childcare and family care solutions. Many employees may not be comfortable raising concerns on their own, so supervisors should be intentionally asking.

• Be prepared to make special accommodations for employees who are either at high-risk or who perceive themselves to be at higher risk of COVID-19 complications. This could include a modified work schedule or workspace.

• Boost morale and create a more relaxed atmosphere with the introduction of fun activities and relaxation breaks. Solicit volunteers to form a fun committee tasked with developing unique activities, such as a Spirit Week that may involve an 80’s-themed workout or line dancing routine.  Virtual happy hours are a great way to connect employees who are still working remotely with those who are back in the workplace.

• Focus on wellness. Some employees may have neglected their own health during the shutdown. They may have missed scheduled doctors’ appointments due to exposure concerns, forgotten to take prescribed medications, strayed from healthy eating or exercise routines, or adopted unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or drinking in excess. Encourage healthier behavior in the workplace by introducing daily meditations, yoga or guided breathing routines.

• Encourage employees to take advantage of company-sponsored EAP resources. If you contract with an onsite healthcare provider, work with its mental health professionals to advise on treatment options for high-risk employees. Depression and anxiety are expected outcomes of the current pandemic, so be prepared to handle them before they become life-threatening.

Most importantly, leaders must be flexible and realistic in their expectations. Your workers have undergone tremendous changes and will likely not return the same as when they left the workplace. Be prepared with holistic approaches that consider their total needs–physical, mental and emotional. As appropriate, involve the help of outside professionals with expertise in the areas of wellness, well-being and mental health. Successfully returning employees to the workplace will be a slow process but, with careful preparation, flexibility, realistic expectations and a focus on clear, honest communications, it is achievable.


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