Returning to Work: Managing Employee Fears during Coronavirus

It’s probably safe to say everyone wants the coronavirus to go away.  We worry about the risk to our health and the health of those we love.  We are also worried about the impact of the economic shutdown on our finances.  These two things, however, can be conflicting interests.  Thus, it is no surprise that the country is split between those who believe we should continue to stay at home, and those who think it’s in our best interest to return to work.   The key is figuring out how to manage your employees’ fears during this uncertain time.

So, let’s discuss the next steps employers need to consider as the country moves toward reopening.  You’ll want to remain focused on managing fears as everyone considers the ramifications of returning to work.

States Returning to Work

As of today, there are nine states that have decided on a firm reopening date for businesses.  Therefore, businesses in these states are anticipating employees returning to work soon.  Some of the states will have a gradual rollout, with specific businesses leading the way, and others will follow after.  Then, there are a handful of states that experienced few cases of COVID-19.  Therefore, they feel it is safe to resume business as usual, but with a measure of caution. 

Still, there are other states who have seen hospitals crowded with coronavirus patients, and they have been fighting hard to mitigate the spread of the disease.  These hard-hit states are not ready to return to work, as they do not feel the pandemic is under control in their area.

Whether your state had a severe coronavirus outbreak, moderate instances of infection, or few cases, your employees will probably be concerned about returning to work.  This is where it is up to you to be mindful of the conditions in your state, so that you will be prepared to manage employees’ fears when you decide to reopen your place of business.

Setting Proper Expectations to Manage Fears

The first thing to remember as you begin setting expectations is that your employees are going to want facts, not opinions.  Therefore, it is up to you to provide them with honest and accurate information.  In other words, do your best to avoid interjecting your own point of view.

Next, remind employees that you are processing information as it comes in, and implement changes accordingly.  Assure them that you won’t put them in jeopardy, and that you are making decisions with them in mind.

Finally, communicate that you will continue operating a safe business, and that you will be ready to pivot if anything becomes unsafe for your employees. 

Returning to Work and Employee Rights

One very important thing to keep in mind during all of this is that employees do have rights.  In fact, if you do not react appropriately to an employee’s concerns, you could find yourself in legal trouble.  So, don’t be quick to terminate an employee simply because you need to keep your business in operation.

Still, you need to know what your options are for employees who are concerned about returning to work.  Here are the most important things you need to know:

  • The FFCRA (Families First Coronavirus Response Act) is something that has been mentioned a lot lately.  This piece of legislation has many provisions that protect employees who are ill, are in the process of being diagnosed, or who are caring for a family member who is infected with the coronavirus.
  • The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requires employers to make accommodations for employees with underlying medical conditions.  Especially during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important for employers to consider this for employees returning to work.
  • OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) sets Personal Protective Equipment standards and requires employers to provide a hazard-free work environment.  So, employers need to make sure they are meeting the standards in order to help manage fears.
  • The NLRA (National Labor Relations Act) protects employees from disciplinary action by their employer.  This is specifically in the case where employees recognize unsafe working conditions and decide to make a stand against their employer.

While the aforementioned legislation protects employees, FFCRA regulations can help minimize instances of employees taking advantage of the system.  Employers are allowed to require documentation (from doctors and other healthcare providers) proving an employee is sick or caring for a sick individual in order to receive paid sick leave. 

Hesitant Employees

Now, you are likely to encounter employees who are hesitant to return to work.  This is where you will take the scientific data you know about your state and merge it with employee rights.  If your employees recognize that you are making decisions based on science, but with their rights in mind, they will be more likely to trust you.  As a leader of your company, you want to remain focused on earning trust.  Having employees trust you will make you more effective in managing fears, and consequently employees will feel more confident returning to work.

Nevertheless, your own optimism might not be enough to convince some employees to reenter the workplace.  This is where you might need to get a bit creative.  First, talk with that employee individually, as opposed to a group meeting.  Get down to the bottom of his/her concerns to identify the true reasons why the employee is worried.  Perhaps there is something the employee hasn’t yet told you that could you do to help ease concerns.  If the solution is something as simple as providing hand sanitizer and face masks, then this would be an easy fix.  However, if after your conversation the employee still does not feel safe returning to the workplace, consider if the position’s duties could be performed remotely.  In that case, you could allow the employee to remain working as a remote employee until the risk subsides.

Managing Fears: This, Too, Shall Pass

While many of us are antsy about returning to work, the feeling can be a confusing mix of emotions.  On one hand, returning to work will help strengthen the economy and our own finances.  On the other hand, it may bring additional stress and worry.  So, it’s up to employers to help find ways to set proper expectations and help manage their employees’ fears.  That way, when they do return to work, it can be in a more confident and productive way.  Most importantly, continue to remind employees that this, too, shall pass.  Giving people hope is one of the best ways to manage fear.

Photo of a marquee sign with the words, "THIS TOO SHALL PASS," a nod to the end of the stay-at-home orders, and managing fears as employees are returning to work.
Photo by Florencia Lewis | Source | CC by

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This is not meant to provide legal counsel or advice. Every situation is different. Please contact an HR professional or employment attorney before taking any action.

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