As states around the country consider when and how to reopen the economy, employers are faced with a new challenge: how to balance what’s needed for your business and what’s safe for your workers. You’re likely stocking up on cleaning supplies and masks, retrofitting workspaces and rearranging floorplans. But to fully support your workers, there’s more to consider than hygiene and health. 

The COVID pandemic has impacted every facet of employee wellness: physical, financial, emotional, and social. Many of your employees are coping with intense stress and worry, health challenges, or financial setbacks, and returning to work may be overwhelming. They might be afraid they’ll increase their risk of transmission to themselves or their families, wondering what protections will be in place, or worrying whether their job is secure. So how can you support the mental health of your employees as they return to work? How can you help them feel safe in the workplace? 

Prioritize building trust

Businesses are facing intense financial stress and difficult choices, and most are anxious to resume operations as quickly as possible to begin to recover their revenue. But for the people that drive your business, the road to recovery may be a lot slower. While it may feel costly to slow production, limit customers in your stores, or work at partial capacity, the measures you take now to protect your employees will pay off down the road. 

Trust in your employer has been shown to be a key predictor of employee satisfaction, and high job satisfaction leads to greater employee productivity and employee retention. Planning out and enforcing strong safety procedures, ensuring everyone has the space and the PPE they need, and proactively communicating all you’re planning to do to protect their health will build invaluable trust and confidence in your leadership at a critical time.

Get into employee recruitment mode

One of the biggest concerns for businesses right now is whether they can count on their furloughed employees to return. One-third of workers who lost a job, income, or hours due to the COVID-19 pandemic have already started a new job. You may find yourself competing for some of your best employees. Others may be debating waiting longer before returning, afraid of the risk of transmission. Bring in the experience of your recruiters and get their ideas for how to be your employees’ best option.

Aim to be accommodating

One key strategy for re-recruiting your employees is to be flexible in accommodating their changed situations, but you can’t accommodate issues you don’t know about. Try to make it easier for employees to ask for what they need with clear lines of communication. If you expect a large volume of requests, a designated COVID response team may be a more efficient approach and keep your direct managers from being overburdened. 

Remember that shame and embarrassment often prevent people from asking for help. Set the example to build a culture where employees feel comfortable requesting help. Be open that it’s normal to be struggling right now. Share your own experiences, and ask company leaders to do the same to help validate what everyone is going through. 

When requesting individual accommodations, often people feel they need to share more than they’d like to justify their request. Be proactive in protecting their privacy and tell employees up front that you only need to know the accommodations they need, not the reasons why.

And remember to think beyond medical needs—people are dealing with all kinds of changed circumstances. What can you do to support parents when the summer camps they rely on for childcare are cancelled? Or workers who don’t feel safe taking public transit? Or employees whose household income has dropped and may suddenly be struggling to afford food and basic necessities?

Remember everyone is different

Not every employee will be returning to work in the same mental, emotional, and financial state they were in before they were furloughed. Some workers may be anxious to get back to normal, while others may feel real fear over increasing their personal risk of transmission. Some may be most focused on working as much as possible to make up lost wages, while others may have less capacity than normal to be productive at work. 

Look for ways to be flexible with schedules and take individual needs into account. While governmental guidelines focus on adequate sick time, the mental stress of COVID is a major impact on people as well. If it’s possible, offering even a single paid mental health day can be a compassionate gesture and help employees recharge.

If you’ve had to ask more of some employees—taking on more personal risk, working longer hours, picking up the work of furloughed employees—look for ways to recognize and compensate them for their commitment. On the other hand, if some workers were furloughed and lost out on wages while others were deemed essential, they may be the ones who need extra support.

Get in touch with your employees

The workforce that will be returning is different than the one that left. It will take time and effort to understand what they’re feeling and how they’ve been coping through this crisis, but gaining the insight will help you to better support them so they can be present and productive at work.

So how do you get in touch with what’s going on in your workers’ lives? Check in with your frontline managers and supervisors—they’re the first to hear issues and concerns and they often have the most immediate insight into how people are doing. Human Resources may also have a strong pulse on the state of your workforce and can tell you the trends they’re seeing. 

Anonymity is invaluable if you want people to get personal, so consider a survey or online comment form that lets people share without feeling exposed. This could be a valuable time to take a pulse survey and get a deeper look at job satisfaction, engagement, feelings around benefits, and plans to stay or leave. Tell your workers not just what you want to hear from them, but why, and what actions you will take with that information—knowing how feedback will be used increases survey response rates.

Adjust your expectations

We know that stress and anxiety affect job engagement and performance. Even if you’re doing everything you can to support employee wellness, these extraordinary circumstances will make it difficult for many employees to be as productive as normal. When looking at employee performance, keep that context in mind. Track how employees are performing relative to each other rather than to their pre-COVID benchmarks. 

If you’re seeing larger issues, try to uncover if there are temporary challenges at play and whether personal support or an accommodation like a schedule change could help. WorkLife Resource Navigators are experts solving the kinds of personal challenges that show up at work. If your workforce could benefit from that level of personal support, we can help.