How Employers Can Ease Anxiety About Returning to the Workplace

Businesses were forced to adapt quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders. Some immediately put new IT infrastructure and protocols in place to enable employees to work remotely, while reduced demand for their products caused others to resort to layoffs and furloughs.

Now, as the country prepares to reopen, employers must adapt yet again—and this time, for the long term. Even if the virus subsides in the summer, experts predict it could come back with a vengeance in the fall. With a vaccine estimated to be at least a year away, the threat to employees’ health remains, and, for many, will remain top of mind. Employers can’t simply open their doors, turn on the lights, and expect employees to rush back to their old routines and levels of productivity.

The good news is that there are things that employers can do not only to protect their workers, but also to make them feel protected, so they can worry less, focus on their jobs more, and help return companies that have been struggling to profitability.

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  1. Understand that some employees will be nervous about coming back to work, while others with underlying conditions that make them especially susceptible to the virus will require special accommodations. Still, others will struggle with childcare options as the economy opens slowly in phases. Communicate regularly and frequently about the actions the company is taking to create a safe work environment. This will matter not only to existing employees but also to new recruits who will likely have similar concerns and may choose an employer based on the company’s commitment to taking care of its workers.
  2. Help ensure a safe workplace by implementing routine temperature screenings at the door and, if you haven’t already, formalize HR policies that encourage sick employees to stay home. Also, make sure your culture aligns with your policies; you can’t ask employees to stay home on the one hand but question their motives on the other. Employees need to know that you trust them and truly want them to stay home if they have a fever or other symptoms, to protect not only themselves, but also their co-workers.
  3. Reinforce the need to adhere to behaviors that are proven to help stop the spread of viruses. This includes the simple reminders that we’ve heard so much about over the past several months, including regular handwashing, social distancing, covering the mouth when sneezing or coughing, and not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. In addition, encourage employees to share new ideas to make the workplace even safer. Consider forming an employee safety task force that can collaborate with HR to implement new policies and procedures.
  4. Introduce fun activities, team-building exercises, and relaxation breaks, all of which can boost employee morale and create a more relaxed atmosphere. Stress makes people more vulnerable to all sorts of ailments, so encourage employees to take advantage of company-sponsored EAP resources and to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Be sure that supervisors know the warning signs that an employee might be struggling and need help.
  5. Encourage employees to communicate any concerns openly and address those concerns quickly and directly. A culture of transparency is critical to making employees feel comfortable sharing issues and reporting violations without fear of consequences.

Finally, have realistic expectations. Public health officials have said time and again that reopening the country won’t happen all at once with the flick of a switch, and the same holds true for bringing employees back into the workplace. But taking steps to protect employees, reinforcing safe behaviors, and fostering a supportive culture will go a long way toward getting employees in the right frame of mind to get the company back on track.

Allison Velez is Chief People Officer for Paladina Health, one of the country's largest providers of direct primary care. Paladina Health partners with employers and unions to provide healthcare solutions that minimize costs, enhance access to quality care, and improve employee health outcomes. Allison can be reached at allison.velez@paladinahealth.com.

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