Bill Howatt is the chief of research on work force productivity at the Conference Board of Canada
The topic of social isolation continues to be a part of the daily conversation as employees across Canada deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. For those living alone who have been asked to work from home to support social-distancing policies, it’s understandable that some may be struggling with this isolation period.
But it’s important that we also remember the thousands of essential-service workers who aren’t dealing with home isolation. They have another challenge. They deal with the mental challenge of working in a new way and feeling isolated because of changes in work methods.
Going to work every day during a pandemic demands focus and attention to detail. Essential workers go to work knowing that one mistake in judgment could put them at risk for contracting COVID-19. Even touching a contaminated surface and then forgetting to wash one’s hands can result in unknowingly transferring the virus to a family member.
Employers must be aware that whenever an employee in such working conditions doesn’t feel psychologically safe to express concerns or fears, it can result in feeling isolated. Working under stress and strain, and not feeling safe to share concerns, can have an additional negative impact on their mental health.
Employers with employees performing essential services must understand that working with the fear of catching COVID-19 can be more intense and difficult for some than for others. How this disease progresses over the coming weeks can either be a positive or negative. For example, if the numbers of people dying from COVID-19 continue to rise, employers must anticipate more employees in these roles becoming increasingly stressed.
Many professionals and workers embrace their jobs and do them with pride and vigour. It can be helpful for employees when employers open the lines of communication to invite them to express their concerns and fears. This can help ensure all employees know that their employer cares. Employers should never assume but check in with employees on a regular basis to ensure they know they’re not alone. If they have questions or concerns, they’re empowered to ask.
Employees who are putting themselves in harm’s way can benefit from having a game plan for managing the challenge of going to work each day.
- Develop your personal protection voice (PPV) – There’s no precedent for this kind of work situation in modern Canada. Employers and government officials are trying to figure out how to protect the population and keep the economy afloat. As well, they’re taking drastic steps to help ensure people have food and shelter, along with opportunity for future prosperity. For essential workers to stay safe in this uncertain time and not feel isolated, it’s important to be encouraged by their employers to develop their PPV and to know that it’s always alright to ask questions and share concerns.
- Leverage peer support – For employees unsure or not confident enough to use their PPV, it’s helpful for them to share their concerns with trusted peers. Employers can’t assume all employees will be confident enough to use their PPV, even when encouraged to do so. Since many haven’t developed the skills to self-advocate when under pressure, it’s helpful for employers to assign all essential workers a peer. Set the task that each peer group’s primary objective is to take care of each other’s best interest and to ensure each has a safe place to use their PPV. It’s beneficial when the employer puts some thought into the peer-to-peer matches.
- Leverage technology – Getting real-time feedback on how psychologically safe their work force is can give employers the information needed to be pro-active and respond. Employers can leverage existing survey technology to take daily pulse checks at the end of every shift. This can be done by picking three yes or no questions such as: Do you have resources to be physically safe? Do you feel comfortable sharing your concerns? Do you feel supported? The data can be polled and, based on the results, can help employers keep a pulse on what percentage of the work force is doing okay and provide guidance on when, or if, action needs to be taken.