Scared to Return to Work? Expert Advice on How to Bring Employees Back Safely

Scared to Return to Work? Expert Advice on How to Bring Employees Back Safely

By Tricia O'Connor

When your return-to-work communications say this:

  • Face-to-face
  • Cross-functional collaboration
  • Preserve culture

Your employees may hear:

  • I’m being pressured to work in person
  • My physical safety is at risk
  • Leadership is more concerned with profit than wellbeing

Returning to work… or more precisely, returning to the workplace… is a sensitive subject for many people. Employers desire a return to robust operations and a company culture focused on innovation and performance. Employees seek a safe workplace that protects their health and wellbeing and provides flexible benefits that address their immediate concerns (like childcare).

Can the two groups meet in the middle?

The answer, says our experts, is ‘yes’ but it takes a lot of flexibility. We break down some viable options to bringing employees back safely.

Case Study

We were compelled to write this post after seeing a story about a pharmaceutical company that is recalling employees back to its U.S. office. The global drug company recently sent an email to thousands of employees where it outlined its return-to-work process.

The communication used phrases like “face-to-face”, “cross-functional collaboration”, and the more direct statement, “We expect a return to pre-COVID, regular on-site schedules and work weeks.”

The backlash from some employees has been swift. Three employees gave interviews to at least one news organization, some took to job boards to post negative reviews, and leaked internal company documents somehow landed in the hands of journalists.

The employees bring up three main objections to this in-office recall:

  • The company appears to be putting profit ahead of safety
  • Employees feel pressure to come in and put their families at risk
  • Some remote employees say they’ve performed just as well at home

Widespread Panic

These employees are not alone. Across the country, workplaces are grappling with how to meet their employees’ needs as the pandemic continues and implement viable return-to-work plans. Childcare and schooling is still a huge concern. Caring for aging parents is another. And immunocompromised people are worried for their own health.

This dilemma is something we dived into with an exclusive interview with attorney Megan Mitchell, partner in the Litigation and Employment practices of Arnall Golden Gregory.

Knowing that employees are fearing for their own personal safety and the safety of their families, we asked: “What is your advice for employers who are dealing with employees who say they cannot return? Does this advice change depending on WHY they can’t or won’t come back?”

Mitchell says the answer to this question largely depends on where the employee and employer are located, as state and local laws play a big role in employment issues like this one. Some states have enacted specific guidelines for the return-to-work process, which allow employees to refuse to return to work for certain COVID-19 related reasons. And nationwide, private employers with fewer than 500 employees are required to provide paid leave to employees under specific circumstances, following passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”). But in most instances, a non-specific, non-disability related, generalized “fear of return” will not be a valid excuse for refusing to return to work. As always, employers should consider the specific facts pertaining to the employee and make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

So, while there are some employment-related COVID-19 guidelines and federal protections for employees, it does become imperative employers consider the emotional, psychological, and financial effects this pandemic is having on employees before implementing and communicating a return-to-work strategy.

In essence, leadership needs to demonstrate some flexibility and some empathy.

What Employers Can Do

Showing empathy for your employees’ concerns is an important piece in reassuring them you’re taking their worries seriously. Employees who are scared to go back to the office need their feelings validated and assurances their physical health will be cared for. They need to feel confident in your return-to-work strategy and procedures.

The Society of Human Resource Management recommends supporting employees three ways:

  1. Allow flexible work schedules and environments. Even if you feel it’s necessary to recall all your employees to the office, perhaps consider using hybrid work weeks or alternative shift times. This could certainly benefit dual-working families whose children are going to school virtually or whose daycare hasn’t reopened yet.
  2. Implement physical distancing and workplace safety plans that meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance.
  3. Research the latest findings and recommendations and then communicate appropriate, timely information and action plans to your employees. Employees feel less anxious and stressed when they feel adequately informed and that their employer is taking responsive steps to meet their needs.

Return to Work Safely with EBI

From these examples, we can see it’s essential to have a robust, thoughtful, and clearly communicated employee health and safety program implemented before requesting employees return to the workplace. Tools like testing, temperature screening, contact tracing, physical distancing measures, and mask policies are big changes for employees. It’s important employees are given the time to process these changes and the opportunity to ask questions about how to best follow the new protocols. This level of transparency delivered ahead of time creates a culture of trust between employers and employees.

A backend program like EBI Workplace Health & Safety takes the guesswork out of how to implement a standardized return-to-work protocol. This comprehensive solution provides temperature screening, contact tracing, social distancing monitoring, and operations and risk management in accordance with CDC guidelines, all in one platform.

Let’s Work Together

EBI understands the return-to-work hurdles employees and employers face as they recover from COVID-19. We’re here to help you navigate this uncharted time and come out stronger and wiser. We’re all seeking answers and our goal at EBI is to always advocate for your business goals. Let us know how we can help you.

Reach out to one of our EBI experts. They’d love to speak with you.

About the Author

Tricia O'Connor

Tricia O'Connor

Writer. Digital marketer. Storyteller. An award-winning writer and editor, Tricia O'Connor is the Marketing Content Manager at EBI. Tricia worked as a broadcast and print journalist for nearly two decades writing and producing programming for high-profile networks like ESPN Radio, History Channel, and Hallmark Channel, as well as contributing editorial work to publications nationwide. Tricia joined the EBI marketing team in 2019 and is responsible for content strategy, development, and engagement. Tricia earned a master's degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and is a proud undergraduate alumna of Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

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