As your organization prepares its COVID-19 return to work plan, there are many health, safety, and operational issues that must be covered: employee schedules, wearing masks or other PPE, exposure protocols, work area design, hygiene and cleaning procedures, and more.
However, the challenges that must be addressed as employees return to the workplace are not limited to those we traditionally associate with workplace health and safety. Any return to work plan also must account for the following less visible, but equally harmful, risks of reopening a workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- COVID-19 complaints and retaliation
- Employee mental health
- “Benevolent” discrimination
- Harassment in socially distant work spaces
1. COVID-19 Complaints and Retaliation
As employees learn new COVID-related protocols and CDC guidelines for returning to work, organizations must be very prepared for employee questions – and complaints – about them. Employees may express concerns or file reports about actual or perceived gaps in safety measures, colleagues or customers who do not wear masks, or performing tasks that carry a risk of exposure. I recently participated in a panel with other executives who spoke about the dramatic shift in hotline complaints from traditional compliance issues to almost exclusively COVID-related workplace concerns. Government agencies are receiving thousands of employee complaints about safety and reports of unlawful retaliation against whistleblowers. While retaliation against employees who complain about COVID-related safety is not only terribly damaging to morale, psychological safety, and workplace culture, it is also often illegal.
It is critical for your return to work plan to include training for all employees on new safety procedures – and equally importantly, the important role each person plays in creating a healthy work environment – to proactively address questions and concerns. To prevent retaliation, communicate with all managers about how to properly respond if an employee expresses concerns about COVID-19 and remind managers of their anti-retaliation obligations.
2. Employee Mental Health
COVID-19, economic turmoil, and most recently acts of racism and violence in our communities have taken an incredible toll on the mental wellbeing of employees. A recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, as many as two-thirds of employees report experiencing symptoms of depression at least “sometimes,” but only 7% have sought help from a mental health professional. Fears about the safety of returning to the workplace may exacerbate these already high levels of stress and anxiety. For this reason, the nonprofit National Safety Council is urging organizations to take several steps to make employee stress, emotional and mental health, and substance misuse a top priority as employees return to the workplace.
To help support employees’ mental health as they return to the workplace, organizations should:
- Communicate that mental wellbeing is an organizational priority and seeking support is strongly encouraged
- Provide robust mental health and substance misuse information and support
- Train all employees on the warning signs of stress and anxiety, available resources, and healthy coping strategies
- Be flexible with work schedules and leave to encourage employee self-care as part of your reopening plan
- Combat feelings of isolation by creating opportunities for employee connection as they return to the workplace
- Include in your return to work plan a readjustment period before productivity and capacity return to prior levels.
3. “Benevolent” Discrimination in the Workplace
Many managers are aware that COVID-19 can have a particularly devastating impact on older individuals and people with certain pre-existing medical conditions such as heart conditions, diabetes, and asthma. Because employees with these conditions may be at increased risk of severe illness if exposed to COVID-19, managers may, in a desire to be compassionate and to minimize risk to the organization, require older employees, pregnant employees, or those with known medical conditions to involuntarily take leave or continue to work remotely while other employees are permitted to return to the workplace.
Although perhaps well-intended, this is very likely illegal discrimination under various laws, including the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), respectively. The EEOC has made clear in recent guidance that employers cannot single out and involuntarily exclude an employee from the workplace based on that person’s older age, pregnancy, or serious medical condition, even if the reason for doing so was to protect the employee.
4. Harassment in Socially Distant Work Spaces
One of the risk factors for harassment identified by the EEOC in its Select Taskforce report is workspaces that are isolated or remote. While this has long been an issue for janitors, security guards, and hotel staff, this risk is now very real for all workplaces due to socially distanced work environments.
When employees are working in isolation or socially distanced, they may feel that there is less oversight of, or at least fewer witnesses to, their behavior, emboldening them to engage in harassment. For this reason, legislatures are beginning to mandate anti-harassment training for isolated employees and their managers. Thus, it is critical to include in your reopening plan steps to mitigate this risk, such as reinforcing your anti-harassment policies and behavior expectations and deploying anti-harassment training.
As we look to mitigate the many risks of returning to work and reopening our brick-and-mortar work sites, we must broaden our perspective about what it means to have a safe and healthy place to work. A return to work plan must start with creating an environment where employees feel supported and valued within your workplace culture.