In the rapidly changing environment caused by the COVID-19 virus pandemic, leadership needs to access the latest reliable information and communicate with employees about steps being taken to stop the spread of the contagion. The pandemic has changed workplace safety, introducing significant stress and uncertainty. This can result in leaders doing fewer high-quality safety activities, because they are concerned they can’t answer the most pressing questions. Employee stress increases the probability of distraction when situational awareness is most needed.
While every organization and situation is different, and courses of action need to be assessed against the reality on the ground, the following principles provide some basic guidelines.
Take care of yourself as well as others. As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Follow guidance from the CDC and local health officials. Setting a good example in itself can encourage others to do the same. Know that everyone is in the same situation as you, and while others may perceive that you’re overreacting, remember that we’re all struggling to focus at this time. We need to help each other, especially when it comes to safety.
Stop, take a breath, and think. In a crisis situation, our brains switch into survival mode. We want to do something to solve the problem. However, since the stakes are high, we need to make the best decisions we can in a limited amount of time. That means we need to think clearly. Learn the facts, understand the situation, consider alternatives, think about the repercussions, decide, and then take action. When is comes to a critical safety task, this pause is especially important. Clear your mind before conducting the task. You can verbalize the actions you are going to take as a reminder for yourself and those around you.
Demonstrate a passion for people leadership style. Many legacies of leaders will be cemented in the coming months. People will remember leaders who have compassion and empathy and who sustain their focus on getting people home safely every day. People will also remember poor leadership or very poor handling of decisions that negatively impact others. When this crisis is over, what will people say about you as a leader and as a human being?
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Now isn’t the time to go silent. Instead, increase contact and share with people what you know and be honest about what isn’t known. We all understand that we will get through this pandemic and that tough decisions that need to be made in the business. Our employees will also be making tough decisions in their personal lives. Vocalize the elephant in the room.
Focus on the most important exposure control systems. The pandemic is bad enough, but as leaders we must avoid compounding the problem through an erosion in safety. Given the level of stress and distraction, we should increase the leadership touch points and increasing the frequency of critical safety activities. It’s okay to increase the percent of time that leadership focuses on life threating exposures, but it isn’t okay to reduce the frequency of safety activities.
Educate your workers about best practices in avoiding COVID-19 exposure. As a leader you should not assume that your employee have read all the guidance provided on how to control exposure to the virus. Conduct knowledge-building sessions and conduct demonstrations. Follow this up with targeted observations to see if employees are incorporating these changes into their work habits. Provide positive reinforcement when they do and encourage them to make changes if they don’t. Repeat the observation and feedback process, every day.
The COVID-19 pandemic represents a broad and likely unprecedented challenge across our communities, including our workplaces. By taking a holistic view of the situation and engaging leaders and subordinates in a common cause of safety, organizations can support their people, and their communities, in working through to the other side.