Photo of an employee safely returning to work.

4 ways to help employees feel better about returning to work

Quick takeaways

  • Empathize about the diversity of challenges employees face during this pandemic.
  • Stay proactive and persistent in clearly communicating efforts to keep them safe.
  • Approach the return-to-work journey (or remote work) as a good-faith partnership.
  • Know when to bring in—or direct employees to—outside professional help.

It’s complicated enough for a business owner to navigate the historic economic fallout and volatility of this pandemic.

Persevering through crisis with a staff that feels anxious—if not overwhelmed—by the risks of returning to work can make the challenges of maintaining safety procedures or cash flow seem all the more daunting.

Just ask Cassie Sampson. Her East Village Spa in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, shut down for three months. Offering massage therapy and other personal care is tricky in a pandemic. So Sampson reopened with her staff of 20 divided into two distinct shifts to reduce the possibility of an outbreak.

It’s constant stress at work. Will our customers treat my employees with respect? Will they wear their masks? Will my employees get sick?”

Cassie Sampson, owner, East Village Spa

“It’s constant stress at work,” she says. “Will our customers treat my employees with respect? Will they wear their masks? Will my employees get sick?”

Kimberly Miller, director of employee relations for Principal®, has helped sort through many of these types of concerns for a global workforce of 17,000. Ideas to promote a smooth and safe return to work can apply to companies of every size.

“As a business owner you’re always planning ahead with your finances, right?” Miller says. “Do the same with your people.”

Business leaders this year have emphasized how much they worry on behalf of their employees. Protecting employee health in the COVID-19 era was the No. 2 concern among businesses nationwide in the latest Principal Financial Well-Being Index. And 40% of these leaders don’t want to reopen until they feel it’s safe for their employees to return (not including those “essential” businesses who’ve had to remain open).

Like so many business owners, Sampson says she has learned to focus on what she can control. As the pandemic lingers, here are ways you can help your employees do the same:

1. Prioritize clarity and caution. Stay proactive to keep employees informed about the safety logistics of returning to work.

If you haven’t already, assemble a plan for many of the practical considerations of how to reopen your retail floor or office. (Learn more: “How businesses can reopen offices and return to worksites in 3 careful stages.”) Keep those plans up to date and explain every incremental step to employees. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently updated its guidance to say that those with mild or moderate COVID-19 infections should isolate for 10 days—down from the initial recommendation of 14 days. Virginia in July became the first state to implement specific (albeit temporary) safety mandates and penalties for employers to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus, building on guidelines from the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

“Employees should know and trust that their health is your first priority, and you’re doing everything necessary to keep them safe,” Miller says.

Effective employee communication in a crisis may pay dividends in a less anxious (and more productive) workplace.

2. Closely monitor how employees feel about returning to work and promptly respond to their various (or evolving) concerns.

Whether you operate with a staff of a few or dozens, you may need to juggle differing employee views on the timeline or safety precautions of returning to work. A simple online survey, for instance, might reveal divided sentiment on wearing face masks. (OSHA “generally recommends” that employers encourage workers to wear masks.)

The bottom line is that employees should feel their concerns are heard and taken seriously—even if they won’t agree with every workplace policy.

“Show appreciation to workers who are coming back by really supporting them,” Miller says. “They should never have to ask for wipes or masks or those kinds of things.”

3. Recognize when employees require expertise beyond what you can provide.

The term “reentry anxiety” has been popularized as shorthand for the dread employees may feel about returning to work in a pandemic. They even may struggle with mental health or other challenges exacerbated by the tumultuous year. Even if your business lacks a formal employee assistance program, you may be able to help connect them to professionals through government resources.

“A business owner shouldn’t be getting in the middle of an employee’s clinical depression, or a similar serious issue requiring professional counseling,” Miller says. “Instead, help get them to the right resources.”

See more from the CDC: “Employees: How to cope with job stress and build resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

4. Be honest and transparent about what you can and can’t provide and treat your employees as partners in coping with new ways of working.

Whether a return to the workplace or its opposite—an expansion of remote work—clearly explain that though you can’t provide everything on their wish list to help cope, you’ll do your best to make them comfortable.

“It’s a partnership,” Miller says. “Tell your employees, ‘Here’s what I’m asking you to bring to the table, and here’s what I’m going to provide as well.’”

A newly remote-work employee may find value in eliminating the commute and some of its related everyday expenses. Your business may support that by providing some essential technology at home—without paying for the family wi-fi or the duplication of every amenity available in the office.

Your effort to be fair should help maintain employees’ respect for your leadership and overall team morale.

Business leaders who keep their obvious concern for their employees at the heart of return-to-work decisions during the pandemic should find it easier to temper staff anxiety and encourage a healthier workplace, Miller says.

“Put effort into a plan, show your employees you care, and think ahead about what their questions will be,” she says.

What’s next?

Reach out to your trusted business financial professional or seek one through Principal to find out how your overall employee benefits package might help.

1 The Principal Financial Well-Being Index was conducted online June 5-11, 2020, by Dynata, surveying 500 domestic business leaders from businesses with two to 10,000 employees that offer health insurance and/or retirement benefits.

East Village Spa is not an affiliate of any company of the Principal Financial Group®.

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