Safety Leadership: What leaders can do to help employees return to work safely
Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. In this monthly column, experts from global consulting firm DEKRA share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to safety excellence.
Returning to the physical workplace after the peak of a pandemic is no easy feat. As we all know, life has changed. People have adopted new shopping habits, they communicate and interact in different ways, and they’ve become accustomed to behaviors that may become difficult to unlearn.
With this shift comes inevitable changes for employees – and frontline workers in particular, no matter the industry. One of the major changes affecting most employees is the increase in workload. We’re experiencing a dramatic shortage in the labor market. In September alone, 4.4 million people resigned from their jobs, a trend driven by the changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The worker exodus is particularly high in sectors driven by frontline employees. With fewer workers comes increased workloads for those who remain on duty.
Take distribution. Before the pandemic, the traditional process featured goods moving from a distribution center to a truck to a store. Now, the drivers of those trucks are moving those goods directly to household doors. This means that all of the individuals involved – from the pickers to the drivers – are taking on greater loads, which increases the risk for soft-tissue injuries.
In addition, many employees aren’t at the fitness level they were before the pandemic. Because many stayed home for more than a year, they’ll need time to get into the physical and mental shape needed to do their jobs safely and effectively.
The pandemic also changed the social environment in the home. Employees accustomed to producing in an office environment had to establish home offices in their kitchen or basement. This new environment created inevitable ergonomic challenges involving the arms, shoulders, neck and back. In addition, employees missed interfacing with their peers and managers and, as a result, became increasingly isolated. The situation produced spiking rates of depression, anxiety and even domestic abuse.
Clearly, workers are dealing with more than many of us could expect to handle alone. The loss of control and the uncertainty of the future are real issues, and it takes strong, enlightened and committed leaders to act and address their needs.
So, what can we do? First, leaders can stop pretending daily life is back to normal. The pandemic remains a dangerous reality, especially in areas of the country where COVID-19 infection rates remain high. Even in regions where COVID-19 infection rates have lowered, leaders shouldn’t discount the pandemic’s lingering effects on employees.
Once leaders acknowledge the mental and physical toll the pandemic has taken on employees, they should try to make real connections. Most organizations did an excellent job transitioning to virtual environments, with managers regularly checking in via Zoom to connect with their teams to see how they – and their loved ones – were doing. That needs to continue.
Everyone needs to feel supported, even as we transition back to the physical workplace. The unintended consequences of isolation can be lethal – drug overdoses and depression are just two examples. Leaders who play a greater role in making employees feel connected will do wonders in closing that risk gap.
Second, leaders can promote wellness and encourage employees to take advantage of programs that focus on exercise, hydration and good nutrition. The pandemic forced gyms to close and interactive sports to pause. Individuals who couldn’t afford home gym equipment became accustomed to days, weeks and even months without workouts. Leaders should consider launching a team-based contest to promote safe weight loss, build muscle or increase steps – or other incentives to promote a healthy lifestyle.
Finally, leaders can become more transparent, sharing the challenges they dealt with during the pandemic. Talking with others creates and strengthens the work community and shows that everyone is in it together, no matter their level within the organization. Leaders can leverage the tool of transparency to also make workers feel less overwhelmed and less alone. A burden shared becomes a burden halved, as an old saying goes.
The rapid changes we’ve all experienced since the pandemic’s onset are tough. Leaders can help create a workplace – virtual or in-person – where employees feel connected and prepared to manage through the changes that everyone will continue to experience.
We already know about the link between happiness and productivity. We must also remember that good physical and mental health are connected and fundamental for any workforce to thrive.
This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.
Bruce Madsen is a vice president at DEKRA North America (dekra.us), specializing in industrial ergonomics. He helps workers across industries prevent work-related musculoskeletal and soft-tissue injuries.
Rebecca Timmins is a senior vice president at DEKRA North America. She’s an organizational safety industry expert who helps clients improve leadership, safety and governance by planning and implementing sustainable data collection processes and feedback mechanisms that target specific areas of risk.
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