It’s been a challenging few months. We’re all waiting to burst out of our shells as we start on the journey to economic recovery. Finally, the mandate for business closures is being gradually lifted, albeit in phases.
This slow return to normal reminds me of the poplar tree leaves in my yard. I saw them starting to bud in late February and now they are ready to burst into their fine greenery. It gives me a sense of the coming weather and the freedom and beauty of summer. I’m sure those waiting for the opening of outdoor recreation, campgrounds and seasonal day camps feel the same.
However, freedom and responsibility are two different things. Our health professionals are reminding us that while it is great to finally be out and about, we must still maintain social distancing and other preventative health procedures. After all, the COVID-19 virus is still with us.
With this in mind, organizational leaders and business owners are also being reminded of the responsibility they hold for ensuring their employees feel safe as they return to work. This will require many physical adjustments for those reopening their doors, as physical/social distancing in many instances may be hard to achieve.
It also means leaders will need to focus on a number of emotional and psychological issues as employees re-enter the work world.
Let’s look at two of the key issues and discuss how they might be addressed.
First and foremost, there are many employees who remain fearful of returning to work. Many were sent home owing to personal vulnerabilities — but have these issues been addressed? If not, how will they be addressed?
Still others, such as essential workers, have now reached a point of exhaustion and their personal needs must be addressed. This calls for a good deal of return-to-work planning and the need to focus on the emotional and physical well-being of employees.
Leaders must also quickly address the personal safety issues that arise in their workplace. This may mean staggering the return of employees so that large groups are minimized.
It might mean changing the physical arrangements for specific employee worksites, and the distribution of masks and hand sanitizer etc. It will mean increasing the cleaning and sanitizing of the workplace and work equipment.
For some, it will also mean they will have to implement some kind of employee health-screening device for when they arrive at work each morning. No matter what, each of these elements represents change.
On the other hand, everyone knows fear can be debilitating because it creates a "flight or fight" syndrome and paralyzes a person’s actions and behaviour.
Organizations can’t afford this type of issue and so the first step leaders must take is to help employees overcome this fear.
This is done through a variety of communication strategies that provide sufficient sharing of information, beginning with the initial notification of the call to return to work.
The communication needs to outline the safety procedures the organization has put in place to protect workers as well as all of the orientation and/or "reboarding" processes employees will need to go through as they return to work.
Secondly, leaders must recognize and accept that returning to work is another "change issue" employees will be encountering. Some may go through the change cycle quickly, while others will stall and struggle. Still others will not be able to adapt. No matter what, your employees will experience some sense of loss that must be recognized and addressed.
Keep in mind that while the layoffs or work-at-home mandates came upon workers suddenly, employees have now created a normal work-at-home routine, which they now have to break. Also, some employees will be called back to work while their child-care resources may not yet be available, which will cause more havoc in their lives.
No matter what, every employee at some point will experience shock, denial, panic, self-doubt, and anxiety before they move to the stage of acceptance and letting go their "not-so-old" way of doing things.
As a result, leaders and management must be very sensitive to the signs of stress and be able to quickly take steps to address any issues that arise. At the same time, they need to be fully aware of their own stress signals so they can stay strong themselves.
Part of the return-to-work planning should include an assessment of the potential emotional state of employees and the development of a plan to address this. My preference is to have a counsellor on site for a period of time to keep a watchful eye on the environment and to invite employees to share their concerns. My experience shows that a two-week timeframe is often enough to curb any fears and anxiety.
Leaders and managers must also present a strong, knowledgeable front and be consistent in applying any new parameters. This means management must undergo training so they are fully aware of all of the specific steps taken in the workplace to protect the safety of employees.
There will always be anomalies in how things are applied and/or unique issues that will arise, but these leaders must also be fully aware of employment legislation, as well as workplace health-and-safety legislation.
The two key issues dealt with in this article are only the tip of the iceberg of a return-to-work plan. In fact, employers should be using a return-to-work checklist that outlines all the tasks needed to be undertaken to effectively return their employees to work.
This includes examining the nature of programs/services/products being offered and a schedule for returning to productivity, floor plans that enable social distancing, staffing resources required for each stage of workflow, workplace health-and-safety protocols, employee screening, and general recall procedures.
COVID-19 has challenged every organizational leader but it has also served to raise awareness of the importance of planning, not just the typical strategic plan for the future but also for business continuity.
While no one expects a trauma such as COVID-19 or damage from floods or fires, having at least a basic plan will enable you to get back to work as soon as possible.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCPHR, CCP, M.Ed., of the consulting firm Legacy Bowes, is the author of eight books, a radio personality, a speaker, an executive coach and workshop leader. She is also chairwoman of the Manitoba Status of Women. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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