Just a century ago workplaces looked a lot different and were much more dangerous than today’s post-pandemic workplace.
Worker’s compensation didn’t exist, unions weren’t strong enough to push for protections and OSHA was still a half-century in the future. Working in poor lighting, with little ventilation and no climate control, subject to noise and pollutants, employees in many fields of endeavor went to their job knowing they could ruin their health, lose a limb or even die earning that week’s paycheck.
Certain occupations continue to have inherent risks in the post-pandemic workplace, but today’s employees in hazardous jobs like forestry and construction have a reasonable expectation that their employer is providing as safe a workplace as possible–because they are legally required to do so.
And those protections extend, and are often needed, beyond traditionally high-risk industries. For example, discount retailers have stacked up significant citations and fines in recent years for safety violations such as blocking emergency exits with boxes.
While workplace safety has always been top-of-mind for some portion of the workforce, many of us were likely taking our personal safety at work for granted. Our office, desk or cubicle was probably more tiny house than Taj Mahal but it didn’t elicit fear. Navigating a commute in traffic or living through those 15 minutes before the first cup of coffee kicked in might have seemed like the most dangerous parts of the day.
However, living through a pandemic has changed things.
Post-Pandemic Workers Have Renewed Concerns About Safety
Based on research by MetLife, almost three-quarters of all employees—regardless of where they work—are now concerned about their own safety and the safety of their family. And most feel their employer should do more to enhance that protection.
72% say that safety and protection is more important than ever before
51% say that employers should play a greater role in safety and protection
“Employees expect their employers to provide a safe environment for them,” according to Carol Harnett, President, Council for Disability Awareness.
These concerns may be contributing to employees’ reticence to return to a physical office. Among those who have been working remotely since March 2020, a staggering 87% want to stay remote at least part of the time. Many are anxious and feeling mental strain.
As vaccination rates continue to increase and people get used to shedding masks and rolling back other precautionary techniques in public locations, fears may abate. However, some questions remain including emerging variants, how long protection from the vaccine lasts and when a vaccine for younger children will become available.
Experts also now believe the once-touted magic bullet of herd immunity isn’t attainable meaning COVID-19 is unlikely to go away. Instead it will linger as a public health issue for some time.
Frontline Workers Face New Safety Concerns
Even if companies allow all desk-bound employees to continue to work from home, that doesn’t address the safety issues and concerns of people whose job is in a physical location, like a grocery store or other retail location, or those who will be returning to an office.
We’re seeing these concerns anew as questions around the CDC’s guidance related to mask-wearing emerge, especially since the rate of fully vaccinated people varies greatly by state as does the COVID-19 positivity and testing rate.
For example, United Food and Commercial Workers union president Marc Perrone released a statement on May 19 about concerns over employee safety.
“As the union for essential food and retail workers on the frontlines across the country, UFCW is strongly urging retailers not to add to the confusion and to assure customers that the vast majority of people in their stores will still be masked. Keeping retail mask rules in place for most people will help us protect each other and our families. Before the new CDC mask guidance, we knew that unmasked shoppers were ignoring COVID safety measures and likely unvaccinated, so we knew to keep our distance if we were concerned. Now it is virtually impossible to tell who is and is not vaccinated.”
Clearly, people have varying experiences and concerns, and employers need to take note. What’s worrying a store manager in Alabama may not be the same as what’s worrying an accountant in California or a nurse in Maine.
As the country continues to emerge from the grip of a pandemic, employees have a newfound concern over safety but not everyone has the same experience. There are any number of variations based on their own work situation and location over the past year, where they live and the continually evolving public health guidance.
Employers should be aware of these concerns particularly as employees continue in public-facing roles or return from remote work. Different types of support, along with a healthy dose of empathy, will be required to help employees transition successfully over the next months.
Strong businesses need employees who are focused and ready to work, not worried about their health and safety. Supporting employees as we move to a transformed workplace is smart business as it will help them thrive today and into the future.
Want more insights about helping employees address issues associated with COVID-19? Check out the rest of our video conversation with Carol Harnett, HR trend spotter, consultant and President, Council for Disability Awareness.