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How to Address Employee Fear When Returning to the Workplace

By Stephanie Anderson

A recent study conducted by Gallup, “Gallup Panel Normalcy,” asked Americans to consider their willingness to return to normal once government restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic are formally lifted.

The results show about one in five (22 percent) say they would resume their normal daily activities "immediately." Seven out of 10 would "wait to see what happens with the spread of the virus before resuming" and 9 percent would continue to limit their social contact "indefinitely." This translates to more than half of the U.S. workforce lacking the confidence to return to their workplaces. 

The biggest challenge for leadership will be recognizing and overcoming psychological and emotional stability among their workforce as employees begin to return to their workplaces. Companies need to be proactive, strategic and thoughtful with their intentions to create cultures of certainty, confidence and safety amid the chaos and fear.

The question remains: How do you show up for your employees each day? Offering a solid support system while leading with empathy will be key components in answering this question.

Offering clear communication is the first step to achieving employee confidence. Educating your workforce is a critical part of your responsibility. Allowing employees to know what to expect and when to expect it will limit unnecessary anxiety. When possible, give proper notice before asking employees to return to the workplace. This will assist employees with making adequate arrangements for situations such as childcare. 

Maintaining a safe workplace is also of utmost importance. The need exists to determine the levels of safety that will be incorporated, such as employee temperature checks and standard health screenings. Decide what personal protective equipment (PPE) will be provided and ensure you have enough supply for daily operations.

Consider staggered or group shifts, one-way traffic paths in hallways/common areas and reconfigure workspaces to accommodate social distancing. Policies should be in place to address employee hygiene, third-party access, mail/delivery requirements, office cleaning and sanitizing, use of common spaces and other important safety matters.

Employee flexibility will go far with addressing concerns related to COVID-19. Your company should review and update employee-leave policies to address FFCRA/state law requirements and to consider unique circumstances such as child or eldercare. You should also review updated Department of Labor (DOL), Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and state/local guidance regarding employee accommodation obligations related to this pandemic. Consider specific policies for pandemic leave or accommodation requests, including those related to personal and family health concerns.

Actively listen to employees to help address any additional concerns they have about returning to work. Consider conducting an anonymous survey to further encourage responses, and then review the results to determine whether these concerns have already been addressed or whether additional steps are needed.

Employers should accommodate employees who request altered arrangements, remote work or time off from work because of underlying medical conditions that may put them at greater risk during this time. The EEOC's guidance on COVID-19 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) notes that accommodations may include changes to the work environment to reduce contact with others, such as using Plexiglas separators or other barriers between workstations. Efforts should be made to consider all reasonable accommodations. 

For more information on transitioning employees back into the workplace, please review NAA’s recent Best Practices resource, “Transitioning Employees Back into the Workplace.”