HR Management & Compliance

After Stressful Pandemic, Don’t Be Surprised If Employees Are Reluctant to Return

There has been ample news coverage about the invisible toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on our personal lives, but we’re just beginning to grapple with the damage done to our workplaces. As employees return to in-person work, you must be ready for the many emotional and psychological hurdles they will face.

When You Have to Laugh or You’ll Cry

The natural joys of spring and summer, coupled with the excitement of being able to hug our friends and loved ones once again, can easily mask the difficult months that came before. But we can’t forget the fear caused by empty grocery store shelves, the muted joy of welcoming a new baby while cut off from familial support, or the utter helplessness of watching loved ones pass away alone. Every lost celebration of birthdays, holidays, and major milestones reminds us it has been a hard 15 months.

In the face of the great losses, some are experiencing mental health struggles for the first time. And many who have a history of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a litany of other issues have seen greater challenges than ever before. Those facing mental health issues because of the pandemic (a significant proportion of the workforce) may be understandably reticent to venture back into a world that has felt unsafe for so long.

Tips to Help Employees, Employers Adjust to New Normal

Facing the new reality, employers are trying to return to business as usual but finding themselves frustrated by employees’ accommodation requests for mental health issues. A manager’s first reaction is often to think an employee is attempting to take advantage of the situation and simply extend a more pleasant work-from-home set-up.

When an employee’s intentions are suspect, however, you should return to the fundamentals. Workers with physical or mental impairments that substantially limit a major life activity (including the ability to work) are entitled to reasonable accommodations that will allow them to perform their essential job functions. To identify suitable accommodations, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Delaware Persons with Disabilities Employment Protection Act require us to engage in an interactive process, which includes gathering information about:

  • The nature of the employee’s impairment;
  • Its severity and anticipated duration;
  • Activities limited by the impairment; and
  • The extent to which it limits her ability to perform the essential job functions.

Employees seeking accommodations aren’t necessarily entitled to their preferred modification if an alternative solution will allow them to perform their essential job functions and cause less disruption to the workplace. But enter into the interactive process with an open mind and a willingness to fully and fairly evaluate what the employee is seeking.

If continued remote work isn’t a viable option, consider alternatives such as (1) an adjusted work schedule, (2) a hybrid office/telework arrangement, or (3) a phased return to the office.

‘What is the Worst Thing That Can Happen?’

Reasonable accommodation discussions are often plagued by catastrophic thinking. That is, if we grant this accommodation, then everyone will expect it! But such an approach is unproductive, and fears of a slippery slope aren’t a valid basis for denying an accommodation.

One way to get past the fear is to walk through the worst-case scenario. For example, if your business grants an adjusted work schedule, what is the worst thing that can happen? Suppose multiple people ask to work from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. instead of your normal 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. shift. Some possible adjustments include:

  • Opening your operations earlier and meeting customer needs during a larger window of time; or
  • Performing preparatory activities during the first two hours, thereby making later-arriving employees more productive.

Of course, if the accommodation truly poses an undue hardship to your business or requires you to eliminate an employee’s essential job function, then by definition it isn’t reasonable and doesn’t have to be granted. Considering the possible outcomes can help quell managers’ fears and make the discussions more productive.

Bottom Line

Even as the pandemic comes to a close, employees’ mental health struggles won’t resolve themselves overnight. Becoming comfortable with the finer points of the accommodation process will be an investment that pays dividends.

In addition, as a way to entice employees back to the office and ease their transition, it’s an ideal time to invest in benefits targeted at their personal well-being. Consider the following options:

  • No-cost perks such as a relaxed dress code;
  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs);
  • Preventive health services such as dietary counseling and on-site flu-shot clinics; and
  • Company-sponsored exercise classes and subsidized gym memberships.

Labor is difficult to come by, and the benefits can help distinguish your business as you fight to hire and retain the most qualified workforce you can while we transition to the new normal.

Lauren E.M. Russell is an attorney with Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP, in Wilmington, Delaware. You can reach her at lrussell@ycst.com.