Resetting Workplace Goals Amid Pandemic, Layoffs, Unrest

Coronavirus (COVID-19) HR Management & Compliance

Remember 7 months ago, when people were still traveling? I was speaking at the HRComply event in Nashville, Tennessee, giving a presentation on job wellness and its evil twin, burnout. At the time, with low unemployment and surging business, the concern was how to keep a workforce happy, stable, and productive without being brought down by high-stress work or an unsupportive work environment.

Source: Zhanna Hapanovich / Shutterstock

Circumstances have changed since then. The threat to today’s workforce likely isn’t burnout. It hasn’t been named yet, but it is surely there and will be named soon. The diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) expressly exclude the loss of a job, but our workforce as a whole will experience something like PTSD for years to come.

The distress arises from people worried about their jobs—if they will have them and how long they will last. The Federal Reserve and the Congressional Budget Office both project the unemployment rate will settle at 9.3% at the start of 2021 and remain at 6.5% through 2022. Earlier this year, the unemployment rate was 3.5%. Many of your employees will watch their colleagues and friends lose their jobs. That in and of itself is a big stressor.

While finances are the biggest employee worry, health concerns come in a close second, according to an April 2020 survey by MetLife. Not surprisingly, between the two overlapping stressors, almost 70% of the workforce is reporting higher incidences of stress.

But as big as that double dose of stress is, it has been eclipsed and forced out of the public consciousness by the social revolution arising over the past few weeks after the tragic killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. Even if the coronavirus hadn’t wrecked the economy and killed more than 115,000 Americans and counting, the workplace would have been on edge as protests and curfews were affecting life all over the nation.

This Time It’s Personal

The stressors are stronger than usual because each is personal and in-your-face. Your workers are unable to pay their rent, are hypervigilant and jumpy over coughs on public transport, are enraged about decades of personal inequality, and now feel empowered to express it.

Some of your employees are resentful over a sudden and broad loss of personal freedom, experiencing a sense of house arrest. Some are passionately involved in the protest movement, while others may be angry about being unwittingly caught in the middle of a demonstration or worried about their safety if the local police are disbanded.

Each individual is personally worried about getting sick or losing a home or being endangered because of their race. This is the furthest thing from an academic or ethereal debate.

My general employment recommendation is to prohibit the discussion of heated politics in the office. But the three crises have so drenched our collective consciousness, any rule prohibiting their discussion would be honored only in the breach.

If there is a silver lining to the current forced employee separation, it is that the social, medical, and economic debates aren’t as likely to be held in the office or spark tension among employees.

So how does an employer support its workforce through this trifecta of stressors? Start with pragmatic accommodations:

  • Be flexible with employees who are experiencing childcare difficulties.
  • Respect and accommodate employee requests to remain on leave.
  • Provide masks, shields, sanitation, and space to your workers while rigorously prohibiting visitors or customers from getting close unless they, too, take the proper precautions.

For most employees, that may be enough.

Lessons of Burnout

Much of the concern is more than pragmatic, but emotional, too. Many employers are resorting to a standard bag of tricks, promoting employee assistance programs or offering a fixed number of hours of psychological counseling.

But a 50-year study of burnout also offers some lessons. Burnout begins with a combination of two factors: concern about the value of one’s work, coupled with an emotional reaction to workplace issues. But health professionals who studied the syndrome for the past five decades wondered why some employees faced with those two factors suffer burnout and others do not.

Organizations ranging from the Mayo Clinic to the World Health Organization use different terms to describe the disparate responses, but all agree one catalyst that amplifies and embeds the burnout syndrome is “disassociation” from the workplace—feeling alienated from other workers and uncertain about management rules and motives and the future.

The problem is almost everybody is feeling that disassociation now. Quite literally, employees are required to disassociate from one another, exacerbating isolation and the lack of support. They feel a lack of control over their own employment destiny, unclear about what the future holds in their own workplace.

For some, the lack of remote support or the challenge of putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of work creates a dysfunctional workplace—as surely as a bully or a badgering boss. In addition, social upheaval is creating barriers between people that feeds disassociation, literally an us-versus-them perspective of our place in America.

Employers need to find innovative solutions to the problem because the classic answer isn’t available. Ordinarily, the prescription is for more employee interaction in a closer office environment, where teamwork and mutual support are implemented and bonds among employees strengthened. That solution has been taken away from you.

Perhaps disassociation can be combated, however, through solidarity in a common purpose. Employees may not be able to be in the same place, but they can be working for the same goal. The goal might be creating a newer, stronger, safer office environment. The goal might be developing new skills and incorporating them into the job. The goal might be helping the company rebrand and recreate itself for its reopening.

Or one might think bigger, and the common goal might be to help develop a fair, nondiscriminatory, and equal office environment and turn it into a model of how to make our common nation better, one workplace at a time.

Mark I. Schickman is a San Francisco employment law attorney and an editor of California Employment Law Letter. You can reach him at

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