Mention the word Coronavirus, and an unsettling knot grows in your stomach. It is sweeping across the globe with great voracity. Every newspaper headline screams it. Every television news program I’ve watched over the last month leads with it.
While we can’t dismiss Coronavirus as a medical concern, what is it doing to the mental health of workers? As a safety practitioner, I’m concerned about how much distraction this creates in the workplace. This especially is true in those work environments where an absolute focus on work tasks separates staying safe or becoming a tragic loss statistic.
Years ago, I worked in a paper mill that was progressive in the care for its people. You knew you were driving into a different type of manufacturing plant when you passed signage in the parking lot with the company name followed directly by our organizational identity: “An Advanced Concept Facility.”
It was a different work environment. A considerable amount of our time and efforts (and what differentiated us from other companies) was spent focusing on employees. We referred to it as “whole-person health.” In a facility of 500 employees, we simply tried to treat each other the same regardless of rank.
Employee Physical Health
We had in-depth capability development programs and built an organization that strived daily for employee interdependence. All employees had annual physicals and frequent checkups with the plant nurse. They took part in health promotions and had time in their work shift to hit the gym.
Healthy lunch options were available and employees could take free health classes to encourage lifestyle change. We even had stringent rules in areas we knew were detrimental to employee health.
Our focus on employee health was surprisingly different; at least it was 30 years ago.
Employee Mental Health
Another significant difference was our focus on employee mental health. The senior management team had a firm stance that our work was far too complex to allow poor decision-making. We were safe and did not have regulatory issues, but our environment required workers to have a clear task focus.
The the work environment was fluid enough that too much distraction interfered with the work we performed. That could be disastrous in the safekeeping of our employees. The mental health of our employees was important.
Personal Problems at Work
An early example of this was an employee who was going through a divorce. His work crew was concerned. Speaking with the employee, I realized he was not connecting mentally with his work duties. I informed the plant manager and human resources leader, and they immediately informed him of external resources that could help. We told him to take a few days from work with full pay and then to come back on alternative work until we all felt he could return to full duty.
We didn’t have a formal policy, but this type of response often occurred during my tenure, whenever life outside of work had an impact on employees. It is an essential lesson in my development as a safety practitioner. The ability to protect the health and wellbeing of our workforce extends far past what I am able to control with machine guarding, safety procedures, or rules.
Employees bring problems when they come to work. Relationship issues, financial issues, raising children, prolonged illnesses, an aging parent, and many other stressors contribute to causing distraction at work. The bottom line is that what happens off the job affects us, and everyone handles that stress differently.
Deal with Distractions
How do you deal with workplace distractions such as the widespread fear brought on by the Coronavirus, especially when you believe it could affect the safety of your workforce? It is paramount that you are as upfront and honest as possible with employees. It does not mean the organization is admitting fault or taking the blame. Communicate what you know when the crisis is unfolding. It will help sustain trust.
To limit the distractions caused by truths, half-truths, and falsehoods about Coronavirus, here are a few points to consider.
Plan and Communicate
Plan, Prepare, and Train — Don’t leave how your organization handles the threat of Coronavirus to chance. Planning, preparation, and training are just a few of the critical requirements to successfully operate in a way that benefits the safety and health of your workforce. An effective crisis management plan with preparation, along with the clearly defined roles and responsibilities, equipment, and practical training, ensures the best success.
Appoint a Point Person for Communication — If there is a need for public communication, appoint one person – known as the public information officer – and task him or her with discussing the crisis. This person decides what to communicate, how much information is released, and when updates are warranted.
Keep Employees Focused
Conduct Safety Stand-Down Meetings — Have a conversation with employees about the Coronavirus and how the company is addressing concerns. Stopping work for a time clarifies the importance of the subject and allows employees to ask questions. Send the message that you are focused on the issue. You value the safety and health of workers.
Manage Electronic and Digital Distraction — Electronic devices or digital displays streaming coverage of the crisis events can be a source of serious distraction. This especially is true if employees are allowed to carry such devices while working. Be mindful that it would be equally distracting to forbid such devices during a crisis event. The best approach is to create rules to limit the amount the time employees can access information and when.
Explain that task focus is critical, and the wealth of information via digital devices is concerning because it may create an added distraction. Encourage employees to turn off email and news notifications. Ask that they ignore voicemails and messages until breaks.
Limit Divided Attention — Look at the opportunities where you can limit divided attention. We think we can multitask, but research shows we are not great at it.
Review all work that has an increased potential for human, product, or process loss and streamline it. Remind employees to do job tasks in order, one task at a time. Limit high-risk tasks that feature multiple stimuli that require rapid-fire decision-making. Other influences that impact decision-making could come from functional areas like quality, maintenance, and operations. While these complex tasks may be the norm in a high-performing organization, you may need to re-evaluate them during a long duration crisis event.
Be Compassionate — Finally, it sounds simple, but show great care and concern for your employees. The Coronavirus may turn out to be a large-scale crisis, or it may simply fade away as many such events have in the past. However, what you can be sure of is that it is creating a lot of distraction because we do not know what will happen.
Refer to available resources, like the recently published guidance document from OSHA: “Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19.” Work on building better work relationships with employees. Build relationships on two foundational concepts: empathy and trust. If either is missing, the relationship stalls.
Listen to Workers
During the Coronavirus crisis or the next high-impact event, practice active listening. Show that you really understand your workers. Communicate with them in a way that builds an understanding that their employer and managers are working diligently to provide a safe environment.
Simply put, build trust that you are doing everything you can to protect their well-being and need everyone on board to do it.