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Ensuring Safe Return to Workplaces

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

As the lockdown rules are eased and economies are slowly reopened, workplaces will be one of the first places which will see some sort of a return to normal. For economies to recover from the shock of the COVID-19 crisis, it is crucial that safety and wellbeing of the returning workforce is ensured. To this end, various governments and public health authorities have issues guidelines prescribing safety measures at workplace. These typically include

  1. Precautions and preventive behaviors to be practiced by employees such as hygiene, distancing and use of masks/PPE

  2. Cleaning and disinfecting protocols

  3. Measures to manage employees with symptoms, illness or sick family members

  4. Contingency plans for resuming operations despite disruptions and limitations

Two critical areas for success of re-entry of employees into workplaces are absent from most of these guidelines:

  1. Employees' mental and emotional well being - Negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and distress are widely being anticipated by employees re-entering the workspace post-COVID. Stressors include perception of safety, threat and risk of contagion, information overload, uncertainty, stigma and social exclusion as well as financial loss and job insecurity.

  2. Behavior change strategies to ensure employee adherence to safety measures - Most guidelines are limited to training and educating employees about the behaviors the need to adopt in order to reduce transmission. But awareness-intent-action gaps are not accounted for in these guidelines.

What could be improved/is likely to work

Measures to ensure employees' mental and emotional well-being:

  1. Involve employees in the preparation of the post pandemic business plan, which will reduce employees’ level of stress, foster positive attitude and reinforce team cohesion.

  2. Provide clear and transparent information about the organization’s future plans to reduce uncertainty.

  3. Communicate policies promptly, clearly, and in a balanced manner. Furthermore, communicate contextual information and the reasoning behind policies so that employees can deepen their own understanding and also take initiative in unanticipated situations.

  4. COVID-19 is an unexpected crisis, managers need to be coached and trained on how to properly manage it, which may reduce their level of stress.

  5. Develop a zero-tolerance policy towards stigma attached to COVID-19, including identifying a process to report any incidents of stigma or discrimination.

  6. Develop and implement mental health support and services.

Roadmap from awareness to adherence can be broken down into the following steps - awareness about the benefits or need of a behaviour must translate into intent through personal internalization. Intent does not always lead to action; ability and opportunity to carry out the action are critical. While these steps may suffice for a one-time action, for long-term adherence to repeat behaviors, an additional steps is required - positive feedback for reinforcement of behavior.

Below are some potential application of this roadmap to ensuring employee adherence to behaviors such as hygiene, distancing and use of masks:

  1. Awareness and intent: Training and educational programs must go beyond instructions and provide employees explanations about how they may be exposed to risk of infection at workplace and steps they can take to mitigate these risks. At the same time, the steps taken by the organization to mitigate these risks must also be highlighted. A sense of collective responsibility and accountability must be created for ensuring saftey at the workplace.

  2. Ability and opportunity: Employees must have the ability to undertake the safety actions. For example, they must have access to soap, masks, tissues, trash receptacles and adequate personal space. Any contextual barriers to these behaviors must be anticipated removed. Employees should be consulted about the barriers they anticipate. For example, test the use of face masks to ensure they do not interfere with workflow.

Secondly, employees must identify appropriate opportunities to undertake these actions. Opportunities can be signified by providing strategically placed and timed reminders and cues for actions. Appropriately placed signage and posters, hand sanitizers and tissues are example of such cues.

  1. Feedback and reinforcement: Systems must be created to monitor and track employees' adherence to the behaviors. Individuals consistently complying must be recognized and rewarded, while failure to comply must attract mild form of negative feedback, which can be gradually escalated into sanctions for consistent non-compliance.

Wherever possible, use structural or technological solutions to limit personal agency or discretion in regards to behaviors which put employees at high risk of infection. For example, simple screens and barriers between employees or employees and customers, or sensors that can detect and alert when an employee touches there masks or face. More paternalistic measures should be reserved for high risk contexts.



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