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Creating a confident, healthy workforce amidst pandemic concerns

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As states across the country announce their plans for reopening local economies, employers face one of their biggest challenges yet — how to overcome employee fears and concerns when bringing back workers who have either been working remotely or who were furloughed in response to COVID-19.

With a vaccine still at least months, if not a year, away, the threat to employees’ health remains. Employers will make any number of physical accommodations to open up work spaces, install added sanitizer stations, and post signage reminding employees to social distance and wash their hands regularly. Many will even implement thermal scanners at the main entrance. Yet, the challenge of restoring employee confidence so that employees can be productive mandates a much more thorough approach than simply making changes in the physical workplace.

Employers need to recognize the added emotional and psychological needs of employees and respond accordingly. Among other things, employers could benefit from:

  • Creating a culture of understanding and transparency. Employees will understandably be distracted when returning to work. They will be concerned about their own health and that of their loved ones. They will continue to be inundated by the ever-flowing negative news reports. Some will still be struggling with limited childcare options. Employers need to recognize these new realities and implement policies that lighten productivity requirements, offer flexible work schedules and encourage people to take time off--either because they are symptomatic or because they need a break for their mental health.
  • Involving employees, as much as possible, in the creation of new initiatives designed to create a healthy and confident workplace. Most of us have felt a loss of control over our lives during this pandemic. By empowering employees to make decisions about how they work and what they can do to improve workplace safety, you can restore their sense of control. Consider forming an employee safety task force that can collaborate with HR to implement new policies and procedures.
  • Introducing fun activities, teambuilding 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.
  • Providing training programs to educate supervisors so they know the warning signs that an employee might be struggling mentally and emotionally and need help. Stress manifests itself in different ways. Some employees may be irritable, while others may become more withdrawn or have difficulty focusing. Recognizing symptoms early and knowing how to effectively intervene are critical to getting employees the help they need and back on the road to strong mental health.
  • Working in tandem with a primary healthcare provider to evaluate at-risk employees and offer assistance. While employees were away from work, they may have neglected their own health by missing doctors' appointments or failing to take prescribed medicines. They may have adopted unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, overeating, excessive drinking and drug consumption as a means to deal with the added stress of the coronavirus. The CDC has already highlighted the added complications of COVID-19 for people with such underlying diseases as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. A healthy workforce not only leads to a more productive workforce but will also decrease overall health costs.
  • Frequently communicating updates as to what the company is doing to create a safer work environment. This is important for existing employees, as well as new recruits who will likely have similar concerns and may choose an employer based on their level of confidence in the company's commitment to their health and safety.
  • Becoming a good listener. Employees will likely have a lot of questions and concerns. Be certain to address them as quickly and honestly as possible and be open to making special accommodations for people who are at higher risk or who perceive themselves to be at a higher risk for health complications.

Most importantly, don't assume you have all the necessary expertise and resources in-house. This unprecedented situation may require identifying additional outside experts, such as healthcare providers with a track record in improving physical and mental health outcomes for entire employee populations. Third-party experts can introduce new thinking and solutions that have already proven effective for other employers.

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