I am concerned about how employees will perform when they are called back to work —  sooner or later – after being stuck at home.  Re-engaging the workforce while there are still new cases of COVID-19 being diagnosed, may feel like swimming in a rip tide.  I have some suggestions on the care of those who work at businesses large and small, at government agencies, at non-profits. 

The first thing to understand is that there probably will be a next wave and more new cases.  It may come as part of this first wave, especially if we get the go-back-to-work order around Easter.  Yesterday (March 25) we were told that is President Trump’s aspiration. We are told by the news media that the medical doctors and scientists are warning that this is much too soon.

If the number of coronavirus cases surges, we may encounter a triage challenge.  If the hospitals run out of ventilators, who will decide who gets to live and who is left to die?  When such triage comes to your nearest hospital, how will you feel about the ethics of life-and-death?  I’m on the advisory board of the Berman Bioethics Institute at Johns Hopkins, and they’ve studied ways to decide, but how would you feel if it were your child who was not given life saving treatment?  Or if your elderly relative is passed over in preference to a teenager who gets to live?

Leaving aside the outliers – conspiracy theories, junk science and nonsense about “death panels” – the CDC and news media provide a pretty good account of the problems we face.  The worst-case scenarios are worth considering. Let’s talk about what might happen in our workplaces.  The coronavirus has not peaked.  Reported infections are doubling every 2 days.

We are still on the wrong side of the curve, with parts of the country just starting on the upward roller coaster. Clearly, we also need to go back to work.  Our economy is sick, in shock.  

I’m from New Orleans.  A main industry is tourism.  I watched the video of the Mardi Gras celebration four weeks ago.  There were revelers enjoying Carnival.  On Bourbon Street crammed together, cheek to jowl.  Guess what came next.  The corona hangover in the form of an incredible jump in cases of people testing positive, being admitted to hospitals, dying from COVID-19 in New Orleans.  This had a personal shock for me. My mentor in New Orleans, William Barnwell, was infected and died from the virus. 

So much for efforts to keep people six feet apart, to distance oneself from others who may be asymptomatic carriers, to isolate and prevent the spread of the disease.   And this is not just the elderly.   38 percent of Americans hospitalized for COVID-19 are between 20 and 54 years of age. 

The president has an aspiration: we should go back to work.  The economy is struggling but it is not on life support.  Not yet.   But no matter how soon we go back to work, there will still be the coronavirus infecting new victims for months.  The first wave is not over yet. 

How would you feel about giving up shelter-in-place in order to toil with other people in a same space?  How will your organization explain to you and your fellow employees what is going to do to protect us in this new environment? 

How will you deal with such concerns?  Concerns you probably share.  Concerns about infection that are real.  If you don’t want newscasters  and politicians being the main source of workplace discussions, here’s what enlightened organizations  can do to avoid  being inundated by bad tidings that could result in bad bottom lines.

The concern about health and safety in the coronavirus environment is real.  The worry is not only about one’s self, it is also about carrying the virus home, infecting one’s family. This is a particularly acute when employees face the public, including in healthcare, in retail, in manufacturing, in hospitals and including first responders.  Even if you develop ways to help employees to distance themselves at  work, nothing’s  perfect.

Think about surfing.  If you know how to surf then riding the wave is exhilarating.  But the waves will keep coming.  Even when the first wave of the coronavirus ends, will there be a second wave like there was a hundred years ago, when the Spanish flu was more deadly in the second year?  What about flu epidemics farther in the future?  What about bioterror attacks, like the anthrax attack two decades ago?  What about nuclear accidents?  I was at Three Mile Island and saw how freaked out residents were about an invisible threat of nuclear radiation.    

Isn’t dealing with psychological threats something that needs to be continuously updated and added to your organization’s capabilities?  Part of coping with health and safety threats?

My colleague at UMGC, Professor Donald Donahue in the business school, reminds us that extended stress degrades the body’s immune system.  Champion athletes succeed because they are mentally focused, physically prepared and share a singular goal.  Employees are no different.

What are the psychological challenges?

  • Distress about new advice that conflicts with prior advice,
  • Altered perceptions about risks,
  • Fear and suspicion about management’s priorities,
  • Unexplained physical symptoms,
  • Inability to sleep,
  • Angry arguments about risks with spouses at home,
  • Self-medication with alcohol or drugs,
  • Triggers for psychiatric illness.
  • Worries about family and the future.

Misleading information, false assurances and failure to address frightening feelings will result in reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, maladaptive behaviors, and conflict in the workplace. 

How do you get ahead of the wave, on top, and improve resilience?  Here are several steps…

  • Show you care.  Workers will perform extraordinarily if they believe you have their back.
  • Listen carefully to their concerns.
  • Demonstrate empathy.
  • Address concerns with consistent, credible messages.
  • Increase environmental hygiene regimes with frequent cleaning of common surfaces.
  • Encourage those who feel ill to stay home.  Fight “presenteeism,” the bad idea you must show up at work.

There are a lot of other good ideas to build resiliency. Several years ago, I co-authored a study that was published by the National Defense University’s Center for Technology and National Security Policy called “Weathering the Storm: Leading Your Organization Through a Pandemic.”  It has additional useful information.  It is free to download on my website, fordrowan.com or on this link:

Download Weathering the Storm at NDU Press.

Successful communication about risks requires honest and straightforward action. I fear most employers aren’t ready for re-engaging with employees and confronting the coronavirus.  That day is coming.  If we don’t want to be swamped there are preparations that must be done before those seas become stormy.