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New workplace protocols could be taxing on staff as economy reopens

Real risk of mental drain with new procedures and policies designed to curb COVID-19


May 14, 2020
By Bill Howatt

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PHOTO: eyesfoto / © adobe stock, ICON: FREEPik / FLATICON

How much effort will it take the average employee to adhere to new COVID-19 protocols?

This is a question all employers should consider since every employee returning to the workplace will be given a new set of daily tasks: Following protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Each workplace will be different and will have different procedures. For example, employees may now have to:

  1. Line up for sign-in (e.g., check ID, take temperature, sanitize hands).
  2. Line up for elevator.
  3. Get to their workspace and wipe it down.
  4. Wash hands again and start work for the day.

Additional time drains will occur for restroom visits, attending meetings and leaving work for the day. How much time new functions will take will vary workplace to workplace. In an organization with 100 employees, if the average employee spends 30 extra minutes a day adhering to all the COVID-19 protocols, that amounts to around 50 hours a day.

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Since time is a limited resource, some productivity and capacity may be lost.

However, is it time employers need to be concerned about or is it the amount of mental energy this new function may take? The stakes are high for making mistakes, but not all employees will have the same degree of concern. Some will be relaxed about the new protocols while others may be worried about catching COVID-19.

For some employees, any breach of protocol will be upsetting and may trigger concern. If this is not dealt with correctly it could result in respectful workplace violations such as acts of incivility (rudeness), bullying and harassment, and potentially workplace violence.

Another risk is that daily administration and supervision of COVID-19 functions may increase mental drain on employees and managers.

Employers will be well advised to not forget that we’re still in a pandemic that will not be over until a treatment or vaccine is found.

Return to the workplace for many employees will be accompanied by some degree of fear and worry about catching COVID-19. Constant worry, being compliant with protocols, and dealing with rule breakers could be mentally draining that if not dealt with could lead to increased stress levels and risk for mental health issues.

How employers can reduce employees’ risk for mental drain

  • Monitor COVID-19 protocol adherence with vigilance:  Ensure all employees adhere to COVID-19 protocols. Allowing some employees to skip steps can create unwarranted tension and stress. Leverage a daily pulse check where employees answer two questions that ask the degree of confidence they are following COVID-19 protocols and how confident they are their peers are also following rules. The desired score is 100 per cent. Anything below warrants asking more questions to determine what kinds of breaches are happening, where and when.
  • Ensure employees have the required personal protective equipment (PPE): Employees’ job functions and sectors will determine the amount of PPE required. Not having the right equipment or feeling unsure they’re protected will increase stress. Keep all washrooms well stocked with hand soap and paper towels, and have hand sanitizer available for when someone comes on and off a floor or moves to another part of the office.
  • Create a buddy system:  Have all employees choose a buddy who is accountable to keep an eye on how they’re doing with respect to mental drain. This doesn’t need to be peer support, just a way for all employees to have at least one person other than their manager paying attention to how they’re doing. The purpose is to check in with each other. If one appears to be having a hard time keeping up, or if feeling anxious or worried is impacting their workplace experience, their buddy can suggest contacting an employee and family assistance representative or talking with their manager for support.
  • Encourage employees to build their own mental fitness plan:  One way to support mental health is to be proactive and do things that can positively support mental health. These include meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, social connections, physical activity, proper sleep, healthy lifestyle choices, journaling, deep breathing exercises and visualization. No two employees need to have the same plan. A mental fitness plan is like a physical exercise plan; it’s designed to create a desired outcome, such as building resiliency levels.

Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR and author of the new book Stop Hiding and Start Living. For more information, visit www.billhowatt.com