As the pandemic begins to subside, there are growing demands for people to go back to work and to reopen the economy. The overwhelming desire of many individuals to return to work is hindered by a pervasive climate of fear that has reached into every corner of our society. A recent poll by CBS News shows that more than half of workers are uncomfortable with the idea of going to a workplace outside of their own home. Employers will need to adopt a proactive and thoughtful approach to help with this transition. What is needed is a culture of confidence, safety, and concern for employee well-being amongst all the fear and misinformation that is circulating.
Employers tend to focus on the physical aspects of the workspace first because these are things most easily controlled and modified. For example, many companies are reconfiguring workplaces to allow for social distancing. Some may want to screen their employees for fever or install plastic barriers around the workspace to provide protection. Sanitizer dispensers have become ubiquitous, as have signs constantly reminding employees to wash their hands and wear a facemask to prevent contagion.
However, as important as these physical changes are, it is the emotional and psychological barriers, which represent the most significant hurdles to overcome. Leadership must realize that many employees have suffered considerable trauma and added burdens during this time of coronavirus. Many employees may have been caring for sick loved ones or have been ill themselves. And some degree of fear is likely to remain until an effective vaccine is found.
An essential step in this healing process is to be flexible with regard to employee work schedules and the use of PTO. Leave policies should be reviewed and updated to promote the idea of not coming into work when you are sick. Employees should not be made to feel guilty for taking time off to care for their health or that of a loved one. Nor should they be penalized for not returning immediately to pre-virus work schedules. In addition, employees should be involved in the process of creating safe workplaces. Everyone feels they have lost control over their lives as a result of this pandemic. You can help restore a sense of empowerment by encouraging active participation in these changes. A formation of an employee safety task force would be an excellent first step in this process.
Communication is also going to be the key during this recovery process. Being open, transparent, and giving frequent updates on what your company is doing to keep employees safe will go a long way toward building goodwill. Supervisors should be trained to watch for the warning signs of depression and anxiety and how to approach employees who seem to be suffering. Many employees are likely to be stressed and irritable, so good conflict resolution skills are going to be at a premium when they return to work.
Other steps that employers should take include creating a more relaxed atmosphere at work and introduce more frequent breaks and fun activities. For example, a virtual happy hour is a great way to connect employees who are still working remotely with those who are back at the workplace. Wellness should be an immediate emphasis on employees. Staff meetings should be geared toward checking in with your employees and seeing how they are doing rather than on meeting work targets and production goals. Encourage healthier workplace behavior by offering daily meditation, yoga classes, or guided breathing exercises.
Staff members should be encouraged to take advantage of company-sponsored EAP resources. Depression and anxiety are likely to be common, and the employer should be prepared to handle them before they become life-threatening. Finally, and most importantly, employers have to be flexible and realistic in their expectations. You will need a holistic approach that takes into account the total needs of your employees, physical, mental, and emotional health. Wherever necessary, involve outside professionals with expertise in the areas of wellness, well-being, and mental health. Returning employees to the workplace will be a slow process, careful preparation and a focus on honest and open communication will be critical ingredients in long term success.
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