The global pandemic has put a strain on businesses, families, and communities, not only from a physical health and financial perspective, but on our emotional well-being, too.  Many are still nervous – or maybe even afraid – to do normal day-to-day tasks like going to the grocery store or visiting the doctors. We are concerned whether masks and hand sanitizers are enough. We worry about our health and the health of our loved ones all the time.

This fear and worry increases when people return to the workplace.  One of the biggest concerns people have as they return is whether they will come in contact at work with someone who has been exposed to the virus, putting extra psychological distress on employees. In fact, 40% of employees globally are worried about coming in contact with an asymptomatic colleague and 45% are worried about coming in contact with an asymptomatic visitor, according to recent research from The Workforce Institute at UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group).

Moreover, employees expect their employers to create a physically safe and healthy work environment.  They want to trust that their employer will notify them if they have been in contact with a co-worker who tested positively.  In fact, another recent survey  finds nearly 9 in 10 U.S. employees (86%) believe their employer has an obligation to notify them if they’ve come in contact with a colleague who has a confirmed positive COVID diagnosis. Yes, health department tracers will let them know eventually, but they want their employer to tell them ASAP.  That’s a tough task for the employer. 

Because employees are setting the bar high for workplace safety and transparent communication, employers need to do all they can to ensure safety measures are in place to protect them.   Here are 4 things you can add to your return to work protocols to help support psychological safety.

Ensure employee privacy 

Privacy and trust go hand in hand with employees feeling safe. They want to know that they can trust their employers with their sensitive information.   If an employee feels that their personal information is shared with their managers or peers, they feel like their privacy has been violated.  Employers should take every measure to keep their employee information protected and stay compliant with EEOC, OSHA and HIPPA Guidelines.    

Consider modern technology 

Modern technology can help employers analyze data to generate reports may help limit potential exposures in the workplace.

For example, should there be a presumed or confirmed positive diagnosis of an employee, modern timekeeping solutions – which many businesses already utilize – should help employers quickly identify who worked with who, when, and where, which is much faster than pen and paper.  

Having this type of information can help employers quickly determine and communicate to employees who may have come in contact with a co-worker who has tested positive or is presumed positive for COVID-19 while also preserving privacy and anonymity. Solutions that can’t quickly generate this information should be replaced as this rapid response is only becoming more important. Even once COVID-19 is hopefully history, it may help with other illnesses or general business continuity during a disaster.   

Have a plan you can apply fairly and consistently 

Employers can apply fair and consistent practices when they have a plan in place to help prevent the spread of the virus to the work force.  One way to do this is to develop a plan that outlines the right precautions employees should take, what health risks the organization may face and, what incidents have occurred. 

A well-defined plan may include how you will track illness related occurrences, along with consistent applications of leave policies.  This will ensure that you have accurate data to communicate effectively with employees and ensure proper coverage without infringing on employee flexibility or work-life harmony during such a stressful time, ultimately keeping the operation productive and everyone engaged. 

Speaking of Communication: Communicate out your plan so everyone knows 

A good communication plan lays the framework for trust.  When employees know that their employer is actively listening to their concerns and delivers honest and transparent communication, they feel physiology secure.  Lack of communication may make some employees feel like their employers are hiding something or downplaying their concerns.  

No matter what channels you use for communication, ensure that you are doing it regularly to reduce doubts and worry.  By setting expectations about what can be expected, a communication plan can help the employee feel like the employer is taking active steps to keep them informed and that they care for their well-being.  

Bonus strategy: Use extreme empathy

According to that same Workforce Institute at UKG survey, more than a quarter of employees and business leaders (29%) wished their organization used more empathy during the initial days of the COVID-19 response. Everyone’s situation is different, and everyone – whether they are a working parent going to a physical workplace, or someone working remotely who lives at home – has challenges right now which may intersect with their work. When employees face these challenges, empathy goes a long way. All COVID-19 response plans and strategies designed going forward should be designed with empathy in mind.

Employees look to their employers for guidance on what to do, what to expect, and how to act.  As employers, providing physical and psychological safety is critical when employees return to the workplace and should be our number one priority. For those who have been going to a physical workplace all along – like frontline workers in the grocery, warehousing, logistics, and food processing sectors who suddenly became essential employees overnight – we should be looking for ways to constantly improve safety plans the same way we look to continually improve efficiency metrics.

When employees know they can trust that their employers have taken every step to keep them safe and every step has been taken to protect them, the anxiety and fears subside. They will feel better about coming to work, which will in turn allow them to be more focused, productive, and engaged. This sort of employee experience isn’t just good for business, it’s simply the right thing to do.