COVID-19 - Support for Workers Returning to the Workplace - Focus Communications
Sue Heuman

Sue Heuman

Principal at Focus Communications
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COVID-19 – Support for Workers Returning to the Workplace

Sue Heuman, ABC, MC

Lots is being written, and rightly so, about the health and safety protocols that need to be in place in order for workers to return to the workplace.

But what about the supports returning workers will need in order to cope with their new environments? In addition to new procedures and schedules, many employees are returning to work filled with anxiety about COVID-19 and safety for themselves and others. This is compounded by workplace concerns for their laid-off colleagues and the overall health of the company. Is ‘Mary’ ok? Will I keep my job? Will the company survive?

Workforce Layoffs

While we absolutely need to treat departing workers with care and dignity, we also need to think about the supports for those who remain.

It’s not easy to come back to work and find your friends and colleagues gone. Many employees will remain concerned for months about their former colleagues – how are they coping? Will they find other jobs? Some workers may also experience feelings of anxiety and anger over being left to cope with additional responsibilities that their former co-workers use to manage. That anger is most often directed at management, but can also be felt by customers and suppliers.

Living with the constant fear of further layoffs, too, can greatly impact employee well-being and productivity. Employees may huddle together to talk through their fears, seeking comfort and reassurance from each other in the absence of any communication from management. It’s critical that management maintain open communication during this time.

How are we doing?

Walking past empty desks and cubicles becomes a daily reminder that the organization is a shadow of its former self. Will it survive? Will I?

Even if your company hasn’t experienced layoffs, employees may be wondering how well the company is coping with the new normal.

Many provinces have begun economic relaunch strategies, however, businesses are still struggling with the dual impact of COVID-19 and low oil prices.

The latter, of course, is of particular concern to Albertans. Even if your company is not involved in oil and gas, the knock-on impacts of strong, or weak, oil prices are felt across the province.

“Results from the summer Business Outlook Survey suggest that business sentiment is strongly negative in all regions and sectors due to impacts from the COVID‑19 pandemic and the drop in oil prices. Firms reported that weak demand is reducing both capacity pressures and expectations for price growth.”

Bank of Canada, July 6, 2020

For employees, this can bring a lot of anxiety over whether or not their employer will survive. And, seeing other businesses close, they wonder if there will be any jobs elsewhere.

While no one can predict the future, it’s important to be as open and honest with employees as you can. Let them know if the business is struggling and engage them in finding solutions. Perhaps there are new ways to cut costs. Or, maybe they can get involved in business development. Giving employees an active role not only helps to calm their anxiety, but also provides the business with dozens of new ideas.

A note about COVID-19 in the workplace

If a colleague tests positive for COVID-19, you must follow the directives of your local health and government authorities in terms of reporting and contact tracing, cleaning/sanitizing, and more. Since these protocols vary from area to area, please refer to experts at the local health authority for specifics.

What employers should do

Communication has never been more critical.

  • Talk with your staff. Don’t assume because you’ve issued a memo that all is well. Check in daily to understand their fears, counter false rumours, and reassure staff. Repeat your key messages about the state of the business and their jobs. Employees will need to hear this often.
  • Make sure management is visible and accessible to employees with questions and concerns. Implement ways for employees to speak to any member of the management team if they want to, such as the ability to email management directly, or dedicated times during the week when various managers are available to receive phone calls. Ensure managers walk around (safely distanced, of course) so that staff can see and interact with them.
  • Engage staff in finding solutions. After all, none of us is as smart as all of us. Let’s face it, this situation is stressful on everyone. Employees might think their managers have all the answers… when the reality is that many managers are struggling too.
  • Be flexible and compassionate to each employee’s circumstances. If someone has tried to come in to work, but finds it too stressful, can they return to working from home for a while, or are there other options? As well, many staff have young children at home who cannot go to school or daycare, or perhaps they are caring for older adults. Be open to ideas about how to support staff with their personal obligations while they continue to work for you.
  • Watch for signs of anxiety and burnout and help staff and managers get assistance with mental health issues they are experiencing. There’s been a strong focus on mental health during this crisis, and for good reason. Let’s take care of each other.

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