Slowing Workforce Exodus Requires Hybrid, Safety Solutions
Employers should emphasize safety, flexibility in reducing worker anxiety.
“I don’t think things will go back to the way they were pre-COVID,” said Veronica McKinney, a human resources professional in North Carolina. The pandemic shattered that way of working even for manufacturing companies like hers that found itself classified as an essential employer.
“Companies like mine were not used to nor in favor of employees working from home,” but COVID pushed them to adjusting to new working norms for employees, McKinney said.
Having a type of hybrid work schedule is good news for countless people.
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“Being able to talk to someone right across from you — having that community right there at work — there’s a lot that’s been shared” in that type of space, said Keisha Moore, a licensed clinical mental health professional in North Carolina.
She’s seen quite a bit of change over the last two years when she opened her practice Destined for Greatness Counseling and Health and Wellness Services. For several of Moore’s clients who want to go back into work, they say they miss the camaraderie, she noted.
And though this may be the sentiment of many, COVID looks like it is here for awhile, forcing some to also need new assurances that returning to work won’t be a health hazard.
The Limeade Institute recently released its findings about employees’ feelings of going back to office. The five-country study, which included the U.S. and conducted at the top of 2021, found that the more than 4,500 employees (managers and workforce) interviewed experienced some type of anxiety about returning to work, citing safety and flexibility as their main concerns.
Several companies have listened to their employees and have created new “return-to-work” plans as well as redesigned office spaces.
“We’ve had to change where some of us work,” McKinney noted, adding that her company included using closed office spaces to reduce the number of people in the shared open-floor space to maintain a 6-foot physical distance when possible.
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Other measures companies have instituted include wearing hard hats with shields on operation floors, masks required regardless of vaccine status, teleconferences, limited number of people in communal areas, and personal cleaning supplies for all employees. Some companies, due to the pandemic, have even had to downsize office space, pushing their employees to schedule time for team meetings because space is limited.
In addition to safety, flexibility is another concern, said Alesia Gilmore, a licensed outpatient mental health therapist in North Carolina.
“Flexibility allows for the worst-case scenario to work itself out. When companies are too rigid in wanting their staffs to come in 24/7/365, it doesn’t allow for flexibility should something happen,” said Gilmore. “And so that inflexibility that some of my clients are seeing is causing that anxiety and worry.”
Creating hybrid models to incorporate new work shifts should help for some who discovered during the pandemic that the 9-to-5 work day was too confining. However, the real discovery during this time has been about self-care.
“From most of my clients, there is no discussion about mental health days,” Gilmore said, pointing out that self-care is among the top needs people should consider when speaking with employers about coming back to the office.
In the past, many companies may have offered employee assistant programs (EAP) that included mental health practitioners. But sometimes those firms did not include a diverse enough pool of clinicians from which to choose.
“What if no one in the EAP looks like me?” Gilmore said of a common question from her clients. They are more interested in working with people who can relate on specific and humanistic levels.
Moore agrees that diversity of clinicians is important for people especially right now.
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“When people come to my office...when they see me...it’s like ‘Oh, my gosh. Thank you. I am so happy to be able to speak with someone who looks like me. You understand...’” She said many of her referrals are for people searching for someone who will understand their specific circumstances and can relate.
Recent racial unrest has prompted this insurgence of preferred affinity. And right now, people crave mental and emotional relief.
According to the latest statistics from the Centers of Disease Control (CDC), the U.S. has almost 890,000 deaths and climbing attributed to COVID. Gilmore points out that worldwide “...bereavement is a part of our life right now.”
Grief, re-evaluating work, and coming to terms with what’s really important have pushed millions to leave their jobs in search of doing something more fulfilling. According to the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 3.95 million people on average quit their jobs monthly in 2021.
As a stop gap to this phenomenon, McKinney believes that communication must be key in retaining a strong workforce.
“Communicate with employees even before coming back to let them know who to contact, the (new) protocols, and to impress upon them to have confidence in their CEO and management team,” she said. “We’re constantly evaluating the situation. And we’ll make appropriate changes as we need to and we’ll communicate those changes with you.”
Nichole M. Palmer is an independent writer in Charlotte, N.C.