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Eight ways to combat employee pandemic fatigue

As states continue to modify, renew, or rescind COVID-19 executive orders and restrictions and workplaces continue to reopen or ramp back up toward full productivity, employers face continued challenges on how to manage workplace safety. Staying compliant with changing and varying federal and state laws and guidance, rethinking almost every aspect of work, and maintaining employee morale are daunting tasks.

Many facilities implement the universal steps to minimize exposure (mask-wearing, social distancing, hygiene, enhanced sanitization, airflow, etc.), follow the industry-specific guidance issued by the CDC, OSHA, and other legitimate industry sources*, and have reconfigured workspaces, restructured workflows and shifts, added technologies such as wearable proximity detectors, motion-sensing doors, touch-free clock ins-and-outs, and even collaborative robots to help prevent transmission.

As the COVID-19 vaccine gains momentum and more states ease restrictions, employers face the added challenge of keeping both themselves and their employees focused on the protective measures. After an exhausting year, "pandemic fatigue" has set in. In some cases, this has derailed successful reopenings; in others, it has led to polarized viewpoints that create worker conflicts. Yet, until the country reaches herd immunity, diligence in enforcing safety measures remains critical to safeguard against COVID-19 outbreaks and to minimize legal risks. Here are eight steps employers can take to combat complacency:

  • Make COVID-19 protocols part of the overall safety culture

    With a robust safety culture, everyone buys into what needs to be done to keep everyone safe. If the protocols are viewed separately, it's easier to rationalize breaking the rules. While they would not violate a hard hat requirement, they may ignore the mask requirement, making such arguments that the danger has passed, it's their personal right, or it's uncomfortable. Or go the other extreme and constantly spray and sanitize creating breathing hazards. It's a good time to provide a refresher on all aspects of safety and health training.

  • Explain why protocols are still needed and the consequences for non-compliance

    Acknowledge that people may have different views on the measures being taken and let them know the company has considered all views to determine what is best for the safety of all employees. Whether it is legal requirements, recommendations from public health authorities, or industry standards, there is a solid basis for the continuation of protocols. Communicate the need as essential to maintaining business operations and jobs and clarify consequences.

  • Enforce consistently

    If a worker isn't following the rules, begin by asking what's keeping them from complying. Masks are often the most contentious and it can help if managers listen to an employee's feelings about wearing a mask. Expressing an understanding of how they feel but reinforcing the company's responsibility to protect everyone's safety and job can help defuse the situation. But if an employee still defies the protocols, enforce as you would any other safety violation.

  • Assimilate returning employees gradually

    As businesses expand their operations and recall more furloughed workers, it is important to recognize that these employees not only need to be oriented to the new way of working but also need to be evaluated for their fitness for duty. For labor-intensive jobs, some will not be in the same physical shape as they were pre-pandemic, and physical reconditioning may be needed to avoid injury. Shift workers who have had their schedules altered may need tips on how to adjust to the new shift, mandatory rest and meal breaks, and increased supervision.

  • Mix up the communication channels

    Many companies established multifunctional teams to develop strategies and discuss the latest developments. Communicating all updates to employees requires constant, targeted communications, which can be difficult in industrial and manufacturing settings. Over time, signage and announcements can have a wallpaper effect - present, but unseen. BJ's tackled this problem at their distribution center by partnering with Everbridge, a mass notification system that provides text messaging.

  • Look for behavior changes in employees

    Watch for signs of irritation, anger, worry, stress, or anxiety. The pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health of many workers, which can make workers accident-prone. Laurence Pearlman, senior vice president at Marsh Risk Consulting, notes that studies have found that 3% of workers account for about 22% of workplace accidents, and those accident-prone workers are 50% more likely to suffer from a serious accident than other employees. However, being accident-prone is typically a temporary condition, usually lasting only six to 12 months and caused by serious problems at work or home. Showing compassion and offering resources for help can sustain a valued employee.

  • Revisit and communicate drug policies

    Early on, the difficult logistics of drug screening during the pandemic led some employers to forgo pre-employment drug testing. While drug testing may require new rules and precautions that need to be communicated to those being tested, alcohol and drug abuse have soared during the pandemic and not just among those who struggled with addiction in the past. Some workers turned to drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate their way through the pandemic.

  • Hold people accountable and thank them

    Employees should understand that they are part of a team and responsible to follow safe practices and help ensure that others do. Train how to de-escalate conflicts. Encourage ongoing dialog with employees and provide a method to report concerns. Continually show appreciation and thank employees for their commitment to safety and to the organization. Positive feedback can mean more now than it ever did.

    Resource reminders: How to support employees as they return to work