Employees Uncomfortable Returning to Work?

Jun 09, 2020

Many workplaces are now open and some are even getting back to their pre-COVID operations levels. A common question I have been hearing is what to do when employees don’t want to return to work because they are feeling uncomfortable. I’d like to share 3 straightforward steps to help.

  1. START WITH EMPATHY Simply forcing an employee come back to work without showing empathy or asking any clarifying questions will erode trust. You have built a relationship with this employee and it would be a shame to destroy that by taking the wrong approach in this situation. Try starting with empathy while being clear on the business necessity for bringing them back. Explain the safety measures you have put in place and how you will be operating the business accordingly. Consider opening the conversation with, “Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I understand these are uncertain times. I’d be happy to have a discussion about this.” Taking this approach will make them more comfortable knowing they can trust you to not bring them back to an unsafe environment.

  2. ASK CLARIFYING QUESTIONS Ask clarifying questions such as: “Can you tell me more about why you are uncomfortable returning to work?” or “Is there a certain date when you may feel more comfortable returning?” See what they say. You don’t need to give them a response right on the spot. Listen. Take notes. Ask additional clarifying questions. (Be careful with medical information. I recommend having someone trained in HR ask further clarifying questions if a medical condition/reason surfaces. You need to be extremely careful with confidentiality around medical information. There may also be accommodation requirements under Americans with Disabilities Act – ADA - for this employee which need to be considered.) You may find that taking these few extra minutes to gather more information leads you to a solution that works for everyone!

  3. DECISION Ask the employee if there is anything else you didn’t ask that they would like to share and that you will reach back out to them in 24 or 48 hours. Commit to getting back to them in the timeframe you give. I recommend no more than 48 hours. Even if you don’t respond with the answer they are hoping for, you will have taken steps to maintain trust by listening to them and at least considering their request before determining how to proceed. Before you make a decision is a great time to tap into your resources! Reach out to other business owners in your network and see how they handled such requests – see what questions they asked to find out more.


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