What Do Employees Need to Feel Safe Returning to Work?

What Do Employees Need to Feel Safe Returning to Work?

By Jennifer Gladstone

We all talk a big game about wanting to get life back to “normal,” but are we really ready to face all that it entails? There are a lot of people now facing the prospect of going back into their traditional workplace after months of being cocooned at home.

So, what is it going to take for everyone to feel confident going back to work? We gathered a panel to give you some expert advice so you can be ready to welcome your team back – whenever the time is right.

Our Panel of Experts

Behnush Mortimer 150x150

Behnush Mortimer, PhD, CRC, CVE, is a Vocational Rehabilitation Consultant with Hall Mortimer Associates. She provides counseling, placement, and consulting services to employees with disabilities. Dr. Mortimer also worked as the project director and evaluation specialist for The Work Center.

David Monks 150x150

David Monks, a partner with Fisher & Phillips, counsels employers on everything from discipline to wages, disabilities, and harassment. His client list is diverse including religious organizations, restaurants, hotels, school districts, medical practices, and many others.

Catherine Mattice Zundel 150px

Catherine Mattice-Zundel is an international speaker, coach, and author specializing in building positive workplaces. She is the CEO and founder of Civility Partners and works with clients that range from Fortune 500 companies to private small businesses.

What have you been hearing from people when it comes to returning to work? Are they excited about getting out of the house or are they nervous?

Catherine: I’ve heard mixed reviews. Some people are nervous, and others are looking forward to returning. The answer seems to depend on the health of themselves or their families.

Behnush: It’s very dependent on the individual. There are so many factors at play – socioeconomic need, childcare concerns, and health and safety. The consistent thought I hear is “I really can’t wait for things to get back to normal,” which leads me to believe there is value on having the ability to work and earn.

David: I’m hearing both. Some neighbors and friends have already gladly returned or are happily preparing to return soon. Others are perfectly fine continuing to work from home. One even says he does not think he’ll ever go back. Part of that is because he just likes working from home and not commuting, but part is also not wanting to take any chances with possible infection.

My clients – employers – have shared that, for the most part, their employees want to be back at work but that the employees very much want to know that the employer is implementing and enforcing good safety and health practices in compliance with applicable laws and guidance.

What are their most pressing concerns? Is it fear of what they will be leaving behind at home or what they will face going back to the workplace?

Behnush: Both of these concerns are present. I hear concern about childcare, having to leave your children supervised or unsupervised with the unknowns with school districts or having to send a child to daycare and worry about their health. There is also fear of work regarding shared air space and public interaction.

David: My employer clients tell me that employees are concerned about what work life will be like at the work location. The employees largely are looking to be done with “isolation” at home, but view being back at work as a kind of “unknown” because they don’t have control over the safety practices – and attitudes – of the employer, their coworkers, and others with whom they’ll interact (clients, customers, vendors).

Catherine: The most pressing concern for those who don’t want to return to work is health. I spoke to a woman yesterday, for example, who’s concerned about her health and is dreading going back to work until she’s sure it’s safe. However, her leadership is really focused on bringing everyone back to the office and she is feeling pressure to return when they reopen. Her employer is putting her between a rock and a hard place – she’s being forced to choose between work and health. She fears that if she continues to work from home she’ll be seen as though she’s not a team player, or weak. If she goes in, she fears getting sick.

What is an employer’s role when it comes to helping people manage the fear factor?

David: Legally, the employer must provide a safe, healthy workplace. State and local laws require that. In addition to avoiding penalties imposed by agencies like Cal-OSHA, the employer will be sending the message to employees that it cares about their health and safety – cares about them as people. As part of this, the employer should be open about what it’s doing and what it expects from employees. It should also make clear that it will gladly receive employees’ concerns and respond accordingly.

Catherine: Hopefully, employers everywhere are sending the message that people should only return if they feel comfortable, and those who don’t will not be judged. Any employer forcing people to return before they’re ready runs the risk of driving down production, as people are less productive when they’re operating in a place of fear.

Behnush: A calm confident leader who keeps the employee in the know is essential. This would include discussing workplace plans for sanitization, safe distancing, and demonstrating by example.

Catherine: It’s also important to set very clear expectations about safety measures and hold people accountable to them. You may have employees who are very cautious about COVID-19 and others who don’t really fear it, so you run the risk of people behaving in ways that don’t match up. Employers should ensure when at work, everyone’s on the same page about how to act despite their personal beliefs.

I also know that workplace bullying (i.e., abusive conduct) has gone up over the course of the year – prolonged stress and competition (e.g., to keep a job during layoffs) are just some of the key factors in its existence. I am aware of several instances where bullying has included putting people at risk, and COVID-19 is no different. One incident involved requiring employees to clean ovens with temperatures of 300 degrees, as waiting for them to cool down would cause a client’s order to be delayed. If this can occur, requiring people to take their masks off certainly can too.

What would be the first thing you would suggest businesses do when planning for their staff to return?

Catherine: The first thing you should do is gather data through a survey, or even just conversations. Find out what they are afraid of, what they need, and where they’re at, then you can plan accordingly. Side note on the data gathering – be sure your questions provide insight that is actionable. I’ve been seeing some survey questions asking terrible questions; asking employees to rate how exhausted they are, for example. This question isn’t reliable or valid, and it’s not narrow enough to know why people are exhausted. A better option would be to ask employees what they need to avoid or recover from burnout, and attempt to deliver what you can from their list.

Behnush: Consider factors specific to their environment and clientele and review and give some thought about how they can meet health and safety guidelines specific to their business. This may include flexible scheduling, limiting staff numbers per shift, having selective job tasks for each employee, having access to sanitization material, and providing protective equipment.

David: Develop a written return-to-work plan, which incorporates legal requirements; includes a detailed process for action when an employee reports COVID-19 symptoms or a positive test; addresses the training of managers; and lays out clear rules for employees to know and follow relating to temperature-taking, mask-wearing, social distancing, handwashing, and the like.

Catherine: Also, be sure to keep your core values and culture in mind. Ensure signage and messaging matches the culture, for example, and that it feels calm and confident. No one wants to feel like they’re returning to work in a war zone with caution tape and gas masks – instead, think about what you can do to make the workplace feel more like a refuge from this ridiculous year of 2020.

Should employers expect people to be less productive at first? Are there ways to prevent that?

David: Probably. But employers can take steps to mitigate against that. One step is informing employees about what is expected from them. While the employer should be sensitive to employees’ having difficulties (and should help with such difficulties when possible), it should make sure that employees know that they are expected to perform their jobs to their full capacity. Regularly communicating to employees about processes, developments, and other issues relating to the company’s business can help avoid gossip, rumors, and unfounded reasons for stress and anxiety among the workers.

Catherine: Yes, I think people will need time to reacquaint themselves with being at work, but they also have a lot to learn about the new ways of doing things. You can minimize the learning curve in all the ways you minimize the learning curve for new hires – with an excellent onboarding program. Onboarding should create a VIP experience for new hires, making them feel welcome and safe to ask questions while you provide tools to help them learn “the way it is around here.” All of that applies here.

Behnush: If there have been major job task changes there may be a learning curve for an employee. Again, this is where a calm confident leader can lead by example and make sure employees understand workplace changes and have a clear idea of what they could expect in the workplace. The employer and employee can also discuss productivity goals.

Are there any hard and fast rules when it comes to reorganizing your space?

Behnush: The best we can do is follow health and safety guidelines regarding distancing, wearing masks when appropriate and sanitization procedures. If the business is able to reorganize workspace to allow additional distance then that may be a consideration. An ergonomic evaluation may help to look at a workspace and determine best environment practices to make sure the employee ergonomically can remain productive and safe.

What kind of pitfalls should an employer be prepared for during re-opening as well as after people return and get more comfortable?

David: From a legal perspective, complacency could be a problem. Employers must take steps to stay current with ever-evolving developments in state guidance, CDC guidance, and local health orders and similar regulations.

Behnush: With any major change there is a transition adjustment. Employers should be prepared for questions, possible worry by employees, and a productivity adjustment period as employees find the new norm. The concern is that after time passes, employees may become lax on new safety procedures. It is important for leaders to demonstrate by example the consistency in the new safety practices.

David: As time goes on, it is likely that some employees will become more lax with wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and washing hands. Employers who do not address such employees risk having a less safe work environment, which increases the chances of employees being infected. Also, employers who do not do all that is required for maintaining a safe work environment risk employees’ complaints to government agencies and, perhaps, even lawsuits: an underperforming employee who is fired not long after reporting safety concerns may very likely pursue claims for retaliation and wrongful termination.

How do we help people manage strained relationships? For example, there might be frustration or resentment directed at the one person with kids who still works completely from home, or at the one person who never has their camera on at meetings.

Behnush: Keeping communication open between employer and employee as well as colleagues is important. Leaders should make sure this is done in a safe and respectful manner. When appropriate, leaders should give positive praise, as it seems to be more needed than ever during these unique times.

Catherine: This goes back to setting expectations for behavior. If a manager notices some people are on camera and some are not, it’s wise to state the manager’s preference (or the company rule if there is one) and ask people to stick to it.

In the case of some people managing their children while others are not, it could mean some people work a few more hours than others, or come to the workplace while others don’t. Managers would be wise to discuss these issues openly with their teams. Rather than letting this create a divide, it’s a chance to bring the team together. Often challenge binds teams, if they feel supported by each other and if they’re rooting for each other. In other words, this is a chance to build a fantastic, cohesive team, so lean into it.

Are there special tips we can offer managers when it comes to emotional intelligence or patience?

Catherine: This year has been about COVID-19, elections, #BLM, and so much more. We are all exhausted, stressed, and over it. Unfortunately for managers, despite their own feelings they have to carry on while taking the time to acknowledge others’ feelings too. That said, I suggest that opening your workplace up to share emotions will save everyone from the exhausting process of being someone different when interacting with co-workers. We are human all the time, so let’s not pretend we’re fine at work if we’re not. I’m not suggesting we all let our guards down completely and show up to video calls in pajamas with a morning cocktail – but that we all make room for our own emotions and those of our teams.

Behnush: Lead by example with a calm and confident demeanor. Acknowledge your employee’s feelings and fears and relate to them what you are doing as a business and specifically for their job position.

Catherine: You could ask employees how they’re doing and share your own feelings, too. Be vulnerable, and they’ll be vulnerable with you. I really think we need to move past the paradigm that crying at work, or feeling like you might crack under pressure, somehow makes you weak. It might also be helpful to provide an anonymous avenue for employees to share how they’re doing; in the event they don’t want that stigma of looking weak. We use a simple Google form with some of our clients, and people can choose to leave their name or not. Either way, our client doesn’t know who it was, and we can relay the message over without breaking confidentiality.

Where can you turn if you need help with any of these issues?

Behnush: If it is an employment issue, best to turn to your human resource representative or office manager. If it is a mental or physical health concern you always want to turn to the appropriate examiner for guidance on next steps.

David: For legal assistance, employers should view their employment law attorney as a resource to help navigate the new laws and best practices in this COVID-19 world. Other helpful resources are the CDC website, state COVID-19 websites, and county health orders. In addition, law firms, HR organizations, and similar entities are presenting many kinds of webinars addressing workplace-related issues.

Catherine: My team put together a great little one-page document laying out responsibilities for safe reopening from all angles, legal, managers, HR, C-Suite and even employees. You can obtain that here.

EBI is Here to Help

EBI partnered with Civility Partners earlier this year to write a fantastic eBook, Beyond Safety: Reopening & Rebuilding Your Workplace with Employee Needs & Organizational Culture in Mind. It’s 35 jam-packed pages of awesome information about reopening in ways that will build morale and loyalty among your workforce.

EBI Workplace Health & Safety can help you manage safe entry to your facility, create a strong distance monitoring and contact tracing program, as well as provide masks, if you need. Let us know how we can help you bring your employees back to work confidently and safely!

About the Author

Jennifer Gladstone

Jennifer Gladstone

Jennifer Gladstone is a news anchor and journalist with more than 20 years of experience in front of the camera. She's worked in several markets, large and small, and has performed nearly every task needed in a newsroom. As EBI’s Screening News Editor, she keeps EBI’s customers and blog subscribers up to date on the latest screening news and legislative alerts affecting companies of all sizes.

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