Workplace Disturbances in the Age of COVID-19

Workplace Disturbances in the Age of COVID-19

Preparing and Managing for Organizational Uncertainty

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted us.

  • We face uncertainty about our work and personal lives.
  • We’re unsure of what headlines and authorities to believe and trust.
  • We don’t know when we should go back to work, begin shopping, start dining out, or again socialize.
  • We don’t know whether it’s okay to spend money as we face an unknown financial future.

People express this uncertainty in many ways.

  • Some hunker down at home with loved ones.
  • Some go about their business seemingly unconcerned about the risks—in turn, possibly putting others at risk.
  • Some engage in protests for any number of reasons.
  • A few may break down.

During these uncertain times, recent headlines about risks of workplace violence—whether stemming from employees, customers, vendors, or others—raise the question of whether there’s anything that businesses can do. After all, the coronavirus and its aftermath came upon us completely unexpectedly. How can a business and its people anticipate and prepare for such a global pandemic? Likewise, how do we plan for what to do next, given the uniqueness of what’s happened? It’s not like there’s any playbook for such a novel virus.

These Uncertain Times

Along with the health risks and spread of the coronavirus, the current pandemic creates stressful conditions for all of us.

  • Quarantines, including separation from family and friends
  • Working from home and trying to balance the professional with the domestic
  • Job disruptions, including layoffs or job losses
  • Financial hardships

This environment creates new stress or adds to the stress that some already experience. People face financial risks due to quarantines and lost work. Many are cooped up for too long at home. Many may feel they receive conflicting or unhelpful information from authorities about whether to go outside, return to work, and go back to shopping. It’s a lot to process and may leave many feeling at loose ends, with no clear direction.

The Regularity of Uncertainty

But—despite the unpredictable nature of this pandemic—we shouldn’t be surprised by this state of affairs. All aspects of society, including business, periodically encounter stressful times. Such challenging times can include the following:

  • Epidemics and pandemics, including, more recently, the early 1980s AIDS epidemic, the 2009-2010 Swine Flu pandemic, the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic, the 2015 Zika Virus epidemic, among others
  • Natural disasters, including hurricanes and major storms, tornadoes (such as the Midwest 2019 May tornado outbreak), earthquakes, droughts (such as the continuing US Southwest and 2019-20 East African droughts), wildfires (such as the 2019 California and 2020 Australian wildfires)
  • Humanmade disasters and upheavals, including power blackouts (such as those in the Northeast US in 1965, 1977, 2003 and 2019), wildfires (including California in 2017, Texas in 2011, Oklahoma in 2012, Nevada in 2016, and Australia in 2020), economic and financial (such as the 1987 stock market crash, 1990-91 recession, 2001 tech bubble pop and recession, and 2008-09 financial and real estate mortgage crisis), and other events (the 2006 French labor protests, the 2001 US terrorist airplane hijackings)

This data illustrate that stressful and anxious times are not so uncommon. Every few years, specific locations—or society at large—encounter these events.

Challenges in Uncertain Times

During such events, any of us may feel concerns about health and safety, including physical security, availability of food and other personal needs, job loss, and financial uncertainty and hardships. These conditions can generate a lot of stress and anxiety. In turn, it can become difficult for employees to focus on work and other competing priorities. While, during these times, many can handle the stress and anxiety, some individuals cannot. This may be due to:

  • The stress of multiple issues (job, finances, family tension)
  • Added stress from others, including the media, which creates constant unsettling headlines and coverage
  • A weak or diminished emotional or psychological ability to manage unusual amounts of stress
  • Mental illness

During these times, a workplace may face risks from specific individuals. These risks can relate to workplace stress: push for more results, layoffs and firings, or others with personal issues. While most people can appropriately react and respond during uncertainty, some may not.  Stress and anxiety during uncertain times can lead some to snap or behave in ways that put others at risk. Some individuals may be bent on harming others, harming themselves, or damaging physical property, any of which can be devastating—especially if the risk might have been prevented. Times like now can see risks from the following:

  • Strangers who unexpectedly and maybe randomly enter a workplace
  • Coworkers who snap or react to a slow buildup of stress
  • Irate customers or vendors who take their hostility on a business and its employees
  • Angry, hostile family or friends of coworkers who enter the workplace to seek revenge

Planning for Uncertainty

While we cannot know or fully anticipate many of the events that will cause stress, we have experienced enough to know that something will occur—and probably soon. We should expect stressful times—we should anticipate them. We cannot expect that the weather to always remain perfect, our infrastructure to remain standing, our computers and networks to remain operating, the economy to continuously improve, employment to forever rise, and markets to always go up.

Since we recognize that uncertainty can be expected, then it makes logical sense to prepare for it—even if we don’t know the type of uncertain event. For an organization and each individual to prepare for uncertain times, planning is critical. It’s vital for individuals in a workplace to understand what they can do in various situations. An organization and its employees should:

  • Identify the types of uncertain events that may occur and most affect the workplace or staff (labor and economic hardships, hurricanes, power outages, epidemics, etc.)
  • Know the risks that may occur in particular situations
  • Know the early warning signs of what to look for to help prevent or mitigate risks
  • Know what the organization and its staff should do to act responsibly if a risk occurs

An essential aspect for managing stressful times involves training on prevention and response, should an uncertain event occur. This training either can be provided in advance (to help with the prevention of stressful events) or leading into or during stressful events (to help employees respond to stressful times).  Training can help mitigate such topics as:

  • Response during an event that either is likely or when it occurs, could pose a significant risk to the organization and its staff
  • A workplace intruder or active shooter
  • Other forms of violence in the workplace
  • Harassment prevention or response
  • Ways to encourage staff to promote a civil and respectful workplace, which can help staff better interact, should stress increase

With the shrewd anticipation of and/or effective response to risks that may occur—and the attendant problems that flow from these risks—an organization can help prepare and enable its employees to manage these situations. These steps also help to manage the related risks that present themselves.

Relevant Syntrio Courses

Syntrio helps to enable organizations to plan for and manage business risks through training and communications that empower staff to act responsibly, should the risk occur. Syntrio is a leader in the compliance and employment law eLearning industry and creates products intended to engage and educate managers and employees on the dangers to a workplace. By using thought-provoking, real-life examples to illustrate the risks of workplace disruptions, Syntrio can provide useful products that hold the user’s attention and improve workplace culture. We invite you to contact a member of our staff to see how we may assist with your organization’s training needs.

Jason has worked in ethics and compliance for over twenty-five years, consulting with Fortune 500™ companies across the business ethics and compliance spectrum, including assessing and strengthening corporate values initiatives, instituting leadership engagement efforts, developing and revising codes of conduct and policies, designing and implementing related procedures, developing monitoring systems, conducting risk, culture and program assessments.

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