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Returning to work: How to mitigate worker anxiety

cafe workers using register

Millions of employees might soon be back to work as states continue to lift COVID-19 restrictions and the nation eyes a return to “normal.” Already, 88% of America’s hourly plant workers are back to work; and New York City expects between 200,000 and 400,000 people to return to the workforce during the first half of June. However, reopening doors to employees presents challenges for business owners who must balance the need for productivity with an earnest interest in worker safety.

Many employees are reticent to return to work, and empathy aside, the solution isn’t as simple as replacing top talent. Rather, businesses must acknowledge worker anxiety and identify ways to address it in the interest of safety and productivity. The following details how companies can mitigate worker anxiety to promote a safe, productive and profitable workplace.

Employee fears loom large

Mitigating worker anxiety begins with understanding what employees are anxious about. A report published by The Wellbeing Lab and George Mason University stated that only 21.6% of workers who started working at home during the coronavirus crisis are feeling positive about returning to work. Not surprisingly, 85% of those workers are worried about contracting the virus.

Getting sick isn’t the only worry employees have about going back to work. In addition to fears about catching COVID-19, employees are dealing with the following challenges.

Money issues

According to Statista, 45% of U.S. workers are concerned about their economic situations. That makes sense with the unemployment rate at 14.7%, the highest since the Great Depression. In total, American employees have lost $1.3 trillion in income, which equates to an average of nearly $8,900 per employee.

Compounding the issue is the fact that in more than half of U.S. states, many employees are making more on unemployment than they did from their wages. Employees who are offered suitable employment yet refuse to work are ineligible for unemployment benefits – indeed, many are losing benefits when their employers report their terminations – yet despite the Dept. of Labor making it clear fear of contracting the virus isn’t enough for employees to stay home, ambiguity remains.

Employees who are genuinely concerned about safety as well as those who are making more on unemployment can claim their employers do not offer safe working conditions and potentially extend their benefits. The hope is that federal and state governments will soon issue clearly-defined guidelines for safe working environments so there will be no confusion about whether employees can return to work; however, as long as unemployment is more profitable, resistance is likely.

To combat this, legislators are considering two plans to replace the $600 weekly unemployment benefit: one, a gradual reduction in payouts; the other, a bonus for returning to work.

Childcare

As Time puts it, childcare is a catch-22 for working families. Nearly half of the nation’s childcare facilities shut down during the pandemic, leaving parents wondering who will watch their children when they return to work. School closings and an uncertain Fall semester compound the matter, as parents might not have anywhere to send their school-aged children.

Even when childcare facilities and schools reopen, parents might be hesitant to let their children leave the house. An ABC News/Ipsos poll discovered that 69% of Americans said they are not currently willing to send their children back to school.

Child safety is certainly a concern, but parents must consider the cost factor as well: in some areas, childcare can cost families as much as 20% of their incomes; nationwide, families pay an average of $9,167 per year per child for daycare. That could prove a tall order for families recovering from the crisis.

Mental health

The crisis has taken its toll on employee wellbeing; in fact, 37 percent cite mental health as a reason for struggling with employment-related issues. In addition to general anxieties about money and physical health, social distancing and stay-at-home orders contribute to mental health issues: loneliness and isolation are risk factors.

Nationwide, crisis help lines have witnessed a surge in calls, and the Well Being Trust estimates the pandemic could influence up to 75,000 deaths due to suicide, drug and alcohol abuse. Employee mental wellbeing is a critical issue that must be addressed so businesses can foster positive and productive working environments.

Burnout

Blind recently reported that 73% of working professionals are burned out, a 12% increase over the 61% reported in February 2020. At that time, employees cited unmanageable workload as the top reason for burnout; that’s still a contributing factor, but it was superseded by the feeling that there is no separation between work and life during COVID-19.

Other top factors for employee burnout include job security concerns, lack of control over work and lack of support from managers.

stressed cafe worker

How employers can mitigate worker anxiety

Employees have a lot on their minds and a lot at stake as the nation returns to work. Employers, then, would be wise to take measures to help reduce worker anxiety and foster a smooth transition to the workplace. Doing so will not only encourage employees to willingly return to work (and avoid adversarial relationships), it can boost employee productivity and morale, which ultimately leads to improved operations and profitability. Here are some steps employers can take to mitigate worker anxiety.

Provide safe working conditions

Businesses should apprise themselves of CDC safety guidelines and implement strategies to keep workers safe. When employees feel their employers are doing everything possible to minimize the risk of exposure, they’re more likely to be comfortable and productive. Ideas include, but are not limited to:

  • Maintain 6-foot social distancing standards between employees and customers
  • Provide employees with masks and gloves, and require employees to wear them
  • Provide hand sanitizer at work stations, entrances and exits
  • Establish shift and daily cleaning and sanitization routines
  • Minimize use of shared equipment and/or establish sanitization protocols
  • Implement staggered shifts to minimize employee contact
  • Allow employees to continue working from home when possible, or only call employees in for necessary group projects
  • Establish one-way traffic patterns through entrances, exits, retail aisles, kitchens and hallways
  • Install sneeze guards at service desks and retail checkouts
  • Close common areas such as lunchrooms, or establish social distancing protocols and staggered breaks
  • Monitor employee health with temperature checks; do not allow sick employees to return to work without physician clearance

Businesses should make accommodations for employees who have disabilities. For example, certain disabilities might prevent some employees from wearing masks. Since those employees might be considered high risk, companies might grant them larger workspaces distanced from other employees or allow them to work from home.

Enforcement is another consideration, especially since 37% of office workers are most concerned that other workers will put them in danger. Given that, businesses should also establish strict monitoring and enforcement protocols to keep all employees safe. If an employee refuses to comply with safety standards, for example, they might be sent home or have their employment terminated.

Offer mental health support

Human resources offices, managers and small business owners can offer mental health support to help mitigate worker anxiety. It’s important to take an empathetic approach and understand that, though they are at work, it’s likely achieving corporate goals won’t be at the forefront of employees’ minds if they are struggling with anxiety. Mental health support examples include:

  • Employer-paid mental health counseling
  • Offer free (and anonymous) mental health screening services
  • Establish an employee assistance program to provide employees with fair and effective treatment for mental health issues
  • Offer mental health resources, such as list of support services or even a list of links where employees can get help
  • Offer extended leave for employees who exhibit mental health systems, without penalty, and perhaps paid
  • Establish an open-door policy so employees can freely share their concerns, judgment-free, and train management to implement the policy
  • Develop or purchase access to online mental health workshops employees can participate in
  • Offer flexibility to help employees establish work-life balance
  • Online mental health workshops
  • Express empathy
  • Discuss and address employee concerns
  • Work-life balance; flexible hours

Though offering mental health support often comes at a price, it’s a worthwhile investment to help employees maintain positive outlooks as they grapple with the pandemic’s impact. Moreover, expressing empathy and offering support help fosters a productive working environment and long-term employee loyalty.

Support the needs of working families

Childcare is a major concern, so employers should consider how they can accommodate the needs of working parents – especially when some talented employees might be on the fence about whether it’s even worth returning to work. Here are some ideas:

  • Allow parents to continue working from home whenever possible
  • Follow the Families First Coronavirus Response Act requirements to extend paid family and medical leave, even if certain businesses and employees are not eligible
  • Provide a stipend for paid childcare services; for companies that have on-site daycares, free childcare might be offered
  • Establish flexible hours that allow working parents to stagger their “home shifts.” For example, an office could allow a parent to work from home part-time, then only come into the office for necessary projects

It’s important for businesses to understand that many parents feel stuck: With schools and daycares closed, they can’t leave their children home alone to come to work. In addition, fears about their children contracting the coronavirus as well as financial concerns can keep parents from sending them to daycares that are open. Working with, and not against, parents who are under an incredible amount of stress can help alleviate some of the anxiety they are experiencing.

Provide financial resources

Though many businesses aren’t positioned to offer financial incentives for returning to work, they can help employees manage their money via financial resources. For example, companies can:

  • Offer budgeting and financial planning classes or online workshops
  • Distribute industry-respected financial planning materials, such as money management and “get out of debt” books and programs
  • Provide access to financial advisors so employees can get back on their feet and prepare for the future
  • Provide access to websites that offer ongoing financial training
  • Help employees identify government and other financial assistance programs, grants and loans

Alongside physical and mental health concerns, money woes permeate employee consciousness and contribute mightily to worker anxiety. Businesses that help employees manage their finances, then, can take major strides toward mitigating that anxiety.

Educate employees

The Wellbeing Lab and George Mason University report discovered that 75.6% of people are uncertain about what actions they should take in response to the coronavirus. Employers can help with education initiatives designed to help mitigate worker anxiety. Examples include:

  • Updated employee handbooks or special additions that cover all workplace safety, sanitization and enforcement protocols, as well as remote work, flexible hours and leave policies
  • Mental health resources posted on-site and distributed via email or employee dashboards
  • Other resources, including financial assistance and planning resources, distributed to employees
  • Website and email content to help employees safely navigate a post-pandemic world, include safety tips that extend beyond the workplace: home, shopping, events and community
  • Employee surveys or chats to identify specific workplace concerns, then action to address them. Surveys can be kept anonymous so employees do not fear retribution for whistleblowing or otherwise identifying unsafe practices and conditions

Businesses that invest in employee education can mitigate worker anxiety by helping employees understand the realities of the situation, take steps to keep themselves and their families safe, and plan to succeed in an uncertain future. Ultimately, education serves to not only address employee fears, but also demonstrate that companies care about their employees’ wellbeing – a powerful way to boost morale and influence long-term loyalty.

Anxiety is detrimental to employee wellbeing and business productivity, and COVID-19 has made workers more anxious than ever. Their fears are valid, so companies must take measures to reduce employee anxiety if they are to foster positive, productive and profitable working environments. Forward-thinking businesses that establish programs and policies designed to mitigate worker anxiety are well-positioned to meet the challenges of a returning workforce. In doing so, they stand a greater chance of emerging from the pandemic with loyal employees who are eager to help their companies achieve success.

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