How you communicate with employees about COVID-19 could affect - for better or for worse - their mental well-being, perception of you as an employer, and willingness to comply with prevention efforts.
Withholding information about workplace cases of COVID-19, whether acquired at work or in the community, could create fear, anxiety, and distrust of the employer. "That's not an outcome you want," says Janet Carr, WSPS Workplace Mental Health Consultant. "A better approach is to be reassuring and as forthcoming as possible without violating privacy guidelines."
This helps allay fear and uncertainty, and builds trust, she notes. "Given all the challenges we're dealing with, it's critical for employers to stay in touch so workers feel in the loop with what's happening around this particular disease, and their personal risk."
Janet outlines six ways to boost the effectiveness of your COVID-19 communications with workers.
- Ensure workers know what your plans are for the organization. "What's the current status? Are you planning to re-open, to bring some or all workers back to the workplace? Are your decisions based on provincial or public health guidelines? Are there other factors that come into play? What's the impact of any changes on staff?" Provide regular updates as the situation changes.
- Be clear about how the workplace is managing COVID-19. Do employees understand all the safeguards you have in place, such as physical distancing, sanitizing, masks, self-screening, staggered work hours? If your COVID-19 safety plan changes, tell workers about what's changing and why. Is it a new public health requirement? A new policy, such as introducing rapid on-site testing or offering time off for vaccinations?
- Make sure communication runs both ways. "Be open to receiving input and ideas from frontline staff, as active listening is an important part of communication," says Janet. "Acknowledge workers' feelings of fear and anxiety and be empathetic with their personal challenges. Ask them, 'How can we together come up with a good solution?' Really include staff in decision-making and give them lots of opportunity for input and problem solving."
- Be transparent about COVID-19 cases in the workplace without breaking confidentiality. Ease alarm and fear by communicating directly. Outline the date, time and place of exposure, says Janet, and what steps the workplace has taken as a result, such as deep cleaning the affected area, and cooperating with a Public Health investigation. Invite questions.
Since personal health information is protected under privacy laws, do NOT reveal the identity of any employee who has tested positive for COVID-19. Explain that Public Health will be in touch with co-workers who may have come into contact with the affected employee.
This would be a good time to reiterate your workplace rules around COVID-19 and your dedication to keeping workers safe.
- Connect people to mental health resources. COVID-19 is having a huge mental health impact on employees, so steer them to credible resources, says Janet. These include employee assistance programs, the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and 211.ca. "For Ontario residents, there are also two free therapist-guided programs based on cognitive behavioural therapy (talk therapy) that workers should know about: Mind Beacon and AbilitiCBT."
- Focus on the positive. For instance, celebrate the vaccine rollout, says Janet, because it's helping us create herd immunity. "Send the message to employees, 'We're moving forward. Eventually, we're going to be able to resume some of our usual activities.'" Take time to celebrate organizational and individual accomplishments, remind employees how important their roles are, and acknowledge their hard work under stressful conditions. "Really thank people for their dedication and courage."
How WSPS can help
- insightful posts from the Psychological Safety Blog, published by WSPS with Howatt HR
- a compilation of COVID-19 related mental health resources
- Help employees maintain positive mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak
- 6 ways to keep connected during physical distancing
- Check out all our COVID-19 resources
The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.