With health and safety being top of mind to help fight the spread of COVID-19, we’ve had to adjust to a new normal quickly, with shelter-in-place orders changing everything from how we get essential items, to how we interact with our friends and family, to how we work. But even when the virus subsides and temporary shelter-in-place mandates are lifted, health and safety, with an extra emphasis on well-being, will need to be at the forefront of our thinking when businesses reopen and employees return to work.

While guidance from the CDC, OSHA, states, and localities will help us shape the new working reality, we’ll also need to take into account the emotional toll the pandemic has had on our workforce, and consider what they may be feeling about the current landscape, as well as the future. Given the dynamic nature of the outbreak, it’s likely that some will be returning with reluctance and concerns about their safety, while others may have additional stressors that have come into play as a result of the pandemic and will need to feel encouraged and supported to be productive. 

So what can you do as an employer to help ensure your workforce feels safe, at ease, and understood as much as possible when they return to work?  Here are 5 tips that can help.


1. Keep the lines of communication open. Just as communication needed to be ramped up when the pandemic first arrived, as well as during the work from home period, it will need to be just as regular, if not more, before and during the time they return to work. This includes communicating openly and transparently about the measures you’ll be taking to help ensure the health and safety of your employees. But it also means encouraging employees to come forward with their concerns, and facilitating an open dialog so associates feel heard and understood when they’re actually back to work. 

2. Ask your employees what they need to feel safe and secure. While federal, state, and local guidance will include the steps necessary to keep your workforce safe, your employees may feel they need additional equipment or resources. So, ask them what they need, and do it before they return to work. This could be done through a conversation or a quick survey, depending upon time and the size of your organization. It’s possible that your staff will want face masks (if your state isn’t requiring use of them), hand sanitizers at their desk, extra cleaning suppliers, visible housekeeping, or other measures you haven’t previously thought of. While not all the suggestions may be realistic or within your budget, asking employees to share this information will not only demonstrate that you care about their health and safety, it will give you actionable insights on what you need to provide them.

3. Empathize. Your employees will be looking to you for encouragement and guidance, but they’ll also want acknowledgement that this is a stressful time. Recognize it and assure them that it’s okay to be anxious. Also, be ready to provide resources, whether it’s through HR, or if you have one, your employee assistance program. And remind your employees about these resources often.

4. Understand. Recognize when stress has become unmanageable for individual employees. Stress can lead to anxiety and even panic. Some employees may need personal days and medical intervention in order to cope, so be flexible and understanding when they approach you with time off requests and concerns about their stress level. Encourage employees to practice self-care activities on-the-job and reassure them that it’s okay to take steps to manage stress, such as relaxation exercises, listening to relaxing music, or taking regular breaks.

5. Recognize this is not quite ‘business as usual.’ Reassure staff that expectations will shift accordingly as you adjust to the new climate, and that’s okay. Remind them that you’re all in this together and you’ll do what you can to ensure they feel safe and supported at work. 


Final thoughts

Just as health and safety were the drivers for shelter mandates and remote working arrangements, they will continue to be the main focus when businesses reopen, and should underpin the decisions we make when welcoming employees back to the office. While guidance on workplace preparedness is available, we’ll also need to take into account the stress and anxiousness employees may feel when returning to work, and do our best to be empathetic and go the extra mile to respond to their concerns. By incorporating well-being considerations, you’ll be able to take a more holistic approach to helping workers feel safe, supported, and productive as we collectively navigate a new workplace reality.


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