It's back to the job for many New Jersey workers. But other than those employers in a state of denial, most employers understand re-integrating the workforce is not a flip-of-a switch and that physical and mental health and safety, so closely tied to productivity and morale, will forever be part of the workplace.
“Before the pandemic, many employers reported suffering from the malaise of low morale, low employee engagement and lacking and meaningful strategy to address these issues, even as the bottom line was being negatively impacted” says John Sarno, president of the Employers Association of New Jersey.
Months into a pandemic that brought businesses to a standstill and disrupted daily routines, these same employees are now coming back to the same jobs.
What is their state of mind?
Roughly one-quarter of American workers feel that Covid-19 has threatened their job security and opportunities, according to a survey of 1,099 workers from the Society for Human Resource Management. While being asked back to work is certainly a good sign for workers feeling insecure about their employment, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised both employers and employees that fear and anxiety about COVID-19 and other strong emotions can be overwhelming, and workplace stress can lead to burnout and related health conditions.
Workplace Stress is Real
Before the pandemic, the World Health Organization reported that high levels of stress at work were causing unprecedented occupational illnesses. One in three employees stated that they had left a job because of mental health-related issues and 89 percent believed that the work culture should support employee mental health.
More than one-third of Americans (36%) say COVID-19 has had a serious impact on their mental health and most (59%) feel COVID-19 is having a serious impact on their day-to-day lives.
According to Sarno, other issues are already surfacing, as many employees have delayed preventive medical treatment during the pandemic and may now need to make necessary medical appointments and care for themselves at the same time that their employer is demanding productivity.
Also, while daycare centers are opening in the state, some working parents are taking a wait-and-see approach, reluctant to expose their children to an environment that may not be safe. Caught between this concern and the demand of a job re-call, some parents are feeling the anxiety of having to choose between their child or their job.
Even more than childcare concerns, return to work decisions will be difficult because individuals in certain categories, older or with medical conditions may be at greater risk of illness. About one-quarter of American workers - 37.7 million people in total - are estimated to be at high risk of serious illness from coronavirus, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation.
Some are at increased risk because of age, and some have health problems like diabetes or asthma that the CDC has identified as risk factors. At the same time, state law protects these workers from job discrimination.
“In fact, our call volume has tipped into majority return to work, which are more complex than furloughing people, as there is significant overlay of medical and legal issues” says Sarno.
Insecurity is Real
Many suddenly unemployed workers in one of the nation’s wealthiest states have been pushed to the edge of hunger, forced to ask for help for the first time in their lives. Our food banks are working overtime.
And many returning workers will have depleted their savings or increased their debt burden, which we know has a negative impact on productivity and wellbeing. Prior to the pandemic, the average working family in New Jersey had only $3,000 in retirement savings; 40% of households headed by a 45 to 54-year-old have no savings at all. Several studies have reported that one in five workers lost substantial hours worked because of poor financial planning and limited savings. Many employers were beginning to incorporate financial planning and debt counseling within their wellness programs.
Low Morale is Real
Further, we know that some workers had decided that they were financially better off receiving emergency unemployment compensation than getting a paycheck. Acting in the short-term, employees actually asked to be laid off because many make more money getting an unemployment check than they do working a low wage job. However, we know what prolonged unemployment does to the mind, body and spirit. And we also know that once business and industry adapts to new efficiencies, getting more with less, there will be no going back from lean staffing.
It is likely that telework arrangements will be left in place for some time and, in some cases, may permanently alter how and where work is performed. It has been pointed out that working from home is a privilege for those higher paid employees who can perform work remotely while “essential workers” such as production workers, administrative clerks and others who make less money bear the costs of commuting. How these inherent inequities are harmonized will be important in setting the overall business culture and whether some employees feel less valued than others.
Can Employers Step Up?
“COVID-19 has not changed the workplace as much as laying bare the lack of worker support talent management strategies by employers, lack of information and lack of insight into employee relations” says Sarno.
However, case studies have shown that the challenge of resolving a crisis can provide some of the most important opportunities to deepen trust and commitment with employees in ways that not only ensure greater well-being for employees, but also position greater business success when the crisis is over.
EANJ is hosting a 2-part program Reducing Stress and Building Trust, Morale and Teamwork at Work July 21 and 23.