The COVID-19 virus era has changed the American workplace in the short term — and maybe in the long term, too.
Safety precautions are paramount.
Many employees are working remotely with new equipment, and a different process, overall.
The upside, of course, is skipping the commute, but a recent Saint Leo University webinar — “Workplace Reimagined/Human Capital and the Return to the Workplace’’ — pointed out unintended consequences that could extract a huge toll on productivity, the human connection and mental wellness, too.
“Most businesses had a contingency plan based on natural disasters, such as hurricanes, but based on the duration and magnitude of this pandemic, many businesses were not ready for something like this,’’ said Sheri Bias, a Saint Leo associate professor with a deep background in human resources. “Now that employees are re-entering the workplace, consideration must be given to a lot of different measures.
“Employers must be cognizant of continuity and the impact on people. They need to understand wellness from a mental standpoint. And, they must understand mental health concerns as they relate to new work demands.’’
Bias said World Health Organization (WHO) research indicates that for every dollar invested by a company in mental wellness, a $4 return can be expected through improved employee health and wellness.
“Employees are juggling multiple things during this pandemic,’’ Bias said. “They may have their own health concerns. They may be dealing with elder care or helping their children with a new online environment at school. And, this is all while balancing their own workload.
“Many of us are working at home and not going out as much as we did. For employees, this can create stress, anxiety and loneliness. There’s Zoom (video conferencing) burnout. From an organizational leadership standpoint, you must show you care. Pick up the phone. Reach out. Ask what you can do for the employee. Those type of gestures can be resounding. It’s establishing that personal connection and, in times like these, that is so very important.’’
Brandy Policita, Saint Leo’s Instructor of Health and Wellness who was a corporate wellness manager for three Fortune 500 companies, said a new term has emerged in her field.
“Before the pandemic, we were already getting a mass amount of emails and texts,’’ Policita said. “Now, communication has gone through the ceiling. The manner of consumption has changed. We’re not engaging. We are numb to it all. Distraction can come into play.’’
Policita said there has been considerable research on the harmful effects of technology on children, but some of those factors are coming into play for adults in the workplace.
“The migration to mobile has been going on quite some time, and we like our mobility,’’ Policita said. “But, as we migrate away from the office space, the lines have been blurred. We thought we were always on before. Now we are really always on.
“It’s causing an array of issues. The multitasking tendencies and technology are leading to eyestrain. Most of us don’t blink enough because we’re always on tech. We’re seeing an increase in headaches, the next for physical therapy or occupational therapy, anxiety and depression. This always-on culture is going to affect employees.’’
Policita said technology has created adverse effects that impact focus, engagement, memory and resiliency. She added that multitasking is a myth, leading to feelings of being overwhelmed and the inability to complete job functions.
So what to do?
“The goal is to be in the flow in the workplace, in the zone, where it feels effortless with no distraction,’’ Policita said. “It needs to be intentional. You need to be in control and employers need to facilitate that.
“We don’t do enough daydreaming, where we reflect and process the day. If we pause now, we probably check our phone. We need harmony and that could mean a digital intervention,” she said.
She continued: “Employers and supervisors need to model proper behavior. They need to encourage weekends, vacations, work recovery. You can pause emails at 6 p.m., and turn them back on at 8 a.m. That could be policy. It would show that time away is not only encouraged, it is valued.’’
Beyond technology-related concerns, COVID-19 also has created heightened precaution and preventative health measures in the workplace. Most of them are related to common sense.
“To be in compliance and to protect everyone, it’s social distancing, wearing a face covering, washing your hands, the things we’ve been hearing all along,’’ said Rafael Rosado-Ortiz, an associate professor of health care management in Saint Leo’s Tapia College of Business.
“We know COVID-19 is highly infectious and we know it can stay longer in the air, like when a smoker leaves the room, but you can still smell the smoke. You’ve got to do the right things and know things like hand sanitizer is not a substitute for soap and water. You’ve got to routinely clean and disinfect the routinely touched areas. In the classroom, it’s desks and computers. In restaurants, it’s the tables, the door handles, the bathrooms.’’
Kathleen Van Eerden, an associate dean in Saint Leo’s College of Health Professions, said employers must be vigilant.
“If an employee comes to work and has symptoms or if they become ill during the workday, obviously the person should be sent home,’’ Van Eerden said. “But, it could also involve making sure they don’t use public transportation, rideshare or taxi that would put others at risk.
“You want to follow all the CDC guidelines in terms of when an employee can come back because you don’t want exposure to other employees or customers. It’s just being aware and following through,” she said.
Being tuned in to employees — whether at the office or remotely — is part of keeping up with a very different workplace in the era of COVID-19.
By Joey Johnston
Published October 21, 2020