Staffing Management

When employees return to work, consider these guidelines

By Andie Burjek

Apr. 27, 2020

As the debate over relaxing pandemic stay-at-home policies continues, researchers at Harvard caution that it is not safe to restart the economy until officials can perform 500,000 tests per day nationwide — a 350,000 per day increase over the current capacity.

With such guidance being considered to reopen schools, businesses and recreational facilities, organizations must be prepared regardless of the timing. Reopening the economy after a deadly, global pandemic isn’t as simple and flipping a switch and returning to normal. There are many considerations employers must address as employees return to the physical workplace. 

Also read: How to use technology in your internal communications strategy

What employees and employers fear when people return to the work

While many employers want to “rev up the economic engines of their businesses,” they know that if this is not done safely, they risk a second wave of COVID-19 cases and another shutdown, said Michael R. Jaff, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, former CEO of Newton-Wellesley Hospital, and member of The Castle Group’s COVID-19 Response Task Force.

return to work policiesEmployers may also have concerns for employees who say they are “ready” to return to work and what ready even means in the context of a global pandemic, according to Dr. George Vergolias, medical director for behavioral health consultancy R3 Continuum. People are ready in the sense that they want their personal lives, jobs, and financial security back to normal, but they’re also worried about personal safety and exposure to COVID-19 if the pandemic is not yet over. 

“It is at such times when we must use our amazing capacity to tap into our resiliency and ability to adapt,” Vergolias said. “It’s important for leadership to both acknowledge the possible struggle in transitioning back to work, and yet don’t expect difficulties in a way that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Workplace policies and protocols should address employees wanting their employers to keep them physically and emotionally safe as a return to work begins, Vergolias said — physical safety in the sense of being protected from COVID-19 exposure and emotional safety addressing their anxieties and fears.    

Employers must have a clear reentry plan with informed safety protocols and resources to help employees with the emotional adjustment of transitioning back to work, he said. 

Jaff also suggested that a thoughtful return-to-work plan will include clear information about the importance of maintaining safe distances, wearing masks, frequent hand washing, and cleaning all surfaces. Employers also should establish policies for sick employees before they can return to work as well as a clear plan for employees who become ill on the job. 

Hart Brown, senior vice president of crisis preparedness at R3 Continuum, noted that organizational protocols will need to be based on federal, state and local guidelines and, in some cases, based on the industry the company operates in. 

A company’s protocol will need to be flexible, he said. Crisis management during a pandemic requires forecasting and the plan may need to change. 

“Constantly adjusting the two to three-week forecast will allow for better decisions today and the ability to avoid being overwhelmed and learning by surprise,” he said. 

Dana Udall, chief clinical officer at behavioral health provider Ginger, stressed the impact of COVID-19 on employees’ mental health even after the restrictions loosen. She cited an Employer Health Innovation Roundtable survey, which found that 60 percent of employers are not satisfied with their company’s response to employee emotional and mental health during this crisis and that employers are expecting a growing need for mental health resources.

The quarantine has increased the risk of many mental health issues. People in drug or alcohol recovery may start abusing again in quarantine. Social isolation also may negatively impact people with depression or anxiety. And the stay-at-home orders have meant an increase in domestic violence, which has both physical and mental effects. 

“It’s clear that while the peak in the bell curve of COVID-19 cases may be in sight, the mental health peak has yet to come — and when it does, it will likely have a long tail,” she said. 

Employers can acknowledge the return-to-work anxieties employees may have by clearly communicating that they can take time off to manage their mental health, making up for vacations or family visits they may have missed during the quarantine. Employers can also communicate the behavioral health resources available in benefits plans, like coaching, therapy or psychiatry. 

Allison Velez is the chief people officer at Paladina Health, which employs both non-essential corporate workers who can work remotely and essential medical professionals who must be on-site.

Velez agrees that continuing to allow employees to work remotely is an important policy. Employers need to have a flexible, sympathetic approach for people in different home situations.

One strategy Paladina Health uses is a regularly scheduled, bi-weekly video call in which clinical staff can ask the organization’s chief medical officer anything and get real-time answers. Employees can voice concerns, get answers and feel like they’re being heard.

“Organizations need to, as they think about bringing employees back to work, continuing to emphasize listening channels like surveys, focus groups, town halls or open calls,” she said. “Continuing that two-way dialogue between the employer and the employee is critical right now, and finding every avenue to do that allows companies to stay on top of the new arising concerns that employees may have as they return to work — or, if they’ve already been at work, continuing to stay healthy at work.”

An employer’s response is critical, Velez said, and not only for the health and safety of the workforce. How well or poorly they respond will impact the employer brand. 

“No organization wants to be in the headlines about a major outbreak right now,” she said. “That’s both because we want to keep our employees safe and healthy, and it’s also because it’s a reflection of the employment brand and how seriously companies are taking this.” While reputation isn’t the primary concern for employers, “it’s a potential unintended consequence if employers aren’t taking the right steps.”   

Companies must make sure to seek scientific, accurate, clinical information, Velez said. This can help leaders and managers disseminate factual information about COVID-19 rather than the myths and misinformation people often hear. Also, they need to make sure they’re on top of HIPAA regulations, especially as companies and their health plans are now increasingly relying on different technology or virtual tools such as telehealth to help employees rather than in-person care. 

How quickly will restrictions be phased out? 

Despite protests for quarantines to end and normal life to begin again, it’s not that simple. Many factors of COVID-19 make the return to normalcy complicated, Jaff said. It is highly infectious and causes serious illness and death, and it is difficult to predict who will suffer from it. It’s still unknown whether those who have recovered are immune to getting it again. And there’s no definitive treatment or vaccine yet. 

“It is important that the loosening of the stay-at-home orders be done very slowly and quickly reversed if there is a recurrence of hospitalizations and emergency department visits,” Jaff said. “A resurgence in the fall, if timed with the annual seasonal flu season, could be more devastating than what we have just experienced.” 

One area of confusion among employers is that because COVID-19 is a new virus, experts may have different opinions simply because people have not been studying the virus very long, Vergolias said. Some medical experts are calling for further social distancing, while others are suggesting that leaders should begin easing those measures. 

“My recommendation for employers and leaders is to frequently update your understanding and knowledge of medical recommendations from known, credible resources and then disseminate that information to your employees in an accessible and pragmatic manner,” he said. “In general, providing timely and practical medical information coupled with emotional support resources is a solid two-pronged approach.”

Andie Burjek is an associate editor at Workforce.com.

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