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Why Are Some Workplaces Struggling With Re-Opening More Than Others?


Hello my friends! My work as an independent Psychological Health & Safety Consultant affords me a unique perspective on workplace culture – a bird’s eye view of the successes, challenges and day-to-day workings of a wide variety of organizations across diverse industries and in different geographical regions across the country. I’ve been thinking a lot about what seems to be working well (and not so well) as businesses re-open. As organizations continue to evolve in relation to COVID-19 protocols, a few key points on fostering a psychologically healthy work environment during stressful times hold true.

Communicate clearly, honestly and often

It will take time for some of your team members to adjust to being back in the physical work environment. To help this process along, leaders should be visible an accessible. Your people should hear from your very regularly in both informal ways (like seeing you in the break room and making it a point to pop by offices to say hello and ask how things are going) and more formally (such as team meetings). Communicate any new protocols clearly and be prepared to repeat the same information multiple times and in multiple ways before it completely sinks in. Heightened stress levels often affect our ability to internalize, process and retain information, so don’t just post your COVID-19 protocols on the staff bulletin board. Go over them at every staff meeting, include them in the company-wide newsletter, post them on the intranet and work them into conversations any time you can. I know it might sound like overkill but even beyond the goal of having your team understand the information, repetition gives a sense of predictability which is comforting right now. Remember, too, that communication shouldn’t just be one-way. The workplace should provide a forum where employees can voice concerns; in fact, multiple forums for this type of feedback are even better. Joe might be comfortable asking questions or sharing concerns at a team meeting while Sally prefers to drop a note into the anonymous Employee Feedback Box and Taylor chooses to communicate one-on-one with the HR Manager. Some of the organizations I’ve worked with have found it helpful to make COVID-19/re-opening protocols a standing agenda item during their team meetings. This is an excellent way to provide space for concerns and then move on once the agenda item is ticked off the list, which is a reminder to everyone that despite the ongoing global pandemic you all have work tasks to tend to as well. When employees do share concerns, validate what they’ve expressed and address it in a timely and appropriate way. Not doing so will render the forum(s) useless if team members get the impression their concerns aren’t taken seriously.

Look below the surface

We all respond to stress differently. Some of your team members have likely pivoted relatively seamlessly and have been able to roll with the punches without much extra support. It’s unlikely this has been/will continue to be the case for every single person in your workplace, so leaders should be prepared to address attitude changes and behaviours they may not have encountered prior to the pandemic. During unpredictable times, the stress response for some has manifested as an intense resistance to change and desire to cling to one’s comfort zone. A common example I’ve encountered has been employees refusing to return to the physical work environment upon re-opening (despite the organization following Public Health requirements to the letter), making the case to their employer that since they’ve shown they can work effectively from home they shouldn’t be required to return to the office. Another shift you may have noticed since re-opening is a lower sense of morale, level of cooperation or sense of team cohesion. This might be attributed to the stress response as well: the Fight or Flight response is triggered by stress which for some prompts a subconscious “every person for themselves” mentality, stemming from the survival instinct. Understanding the diverse ways stress can rear its head positions leaders to better empathize with employees who may appear to be, at first glance, behaving poorly. Giving your people the benefit of the doubt and approaching challenging situations from a place of offering support rather than just managing behaviours or performance will serve you well.

Practice what you preach

If you’re in a leadership role, others will be looking to you for guidance. Remember that what they’re interpreting goes far beyond the words you speak in a team meeting or an organization-wide email. To communicate that employee mental health is a priority in the workplace, leaders must model psychologically safe and healthy practices themselves. Your actions speak far louder than your words and a “do as I say, not as I do” approach will end up doing more harm than good. Those who adopt this leadership style eventually gain the reputation for being untrustworthy – someone who talks out of both sides of their mouth, so to speak; someone who says one thing but really means another. In the long-term, your team members may feel stressed upon receiving verbal direction from you as they feel they have to guess at what you really meant, or question whether they interpreted your meaning correctly. If you’re comfortable doing so, acknowledge to your team that, like each of them, you’re experiencing more stress than usual in your role as well. Don’t feel pressured to come off as being superhuman. Good leadership means your team members feel connected to one another and to you, and honesty fosters that connection. Prioritize your own wellbeing and others will be far more likely to do the same than if you telling them to do so while the whole workplace watches your stress level climb.

Remember, times are tough for everyone right now so a little empathy goes a long way. Be kind to your team members and be kind to yourselves. We’ll eventually be on the other side of this pandemic but until then we might as well embrace the opportunity to learn what we can along the way.

Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to keynote speaking and corporate training on workplace mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.

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