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Employers need to address workplace ‘pandemic fatigue’: Experts

Posted On: Mar. 10, 2021 7:00 AM CST

workplace covid

As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues and states ease restrictions, the message to employers grappling with shifting regulations and bracing for new pandemic safety protocols from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is to stay the course, experts say.

President Joe Biden in January issued an executive order giving OSHA until March 15 to create an emergency temporary COVID-19 standard. Safety experts say a federal mandate is imminent with inspections and fines to follow.

Meanwhile, widespread vaccinations and states’ easing of pandemic mandates have sent the message that the country could resume normal activities soon — a message that has trickled down to the workforce.

“We are seeing this play out in the political arena,” said Twane Duckworth, risk manager for the city of Garland, Texas, and board director for the Risk and Insurance Management Society. Mr. Duckworth noted governors in Texas and Mississippi lifting mask mandates and authorizing the reopening of businesses, along with the ongoing public debate over vaccine safety. The same division “is playing out in the employment aspect as well,” he said. “You have some people who are not in agreement with the protective measures.”

Some attribute the problem to “pandemic fatigue.”

“Pandemic fatigue is very real and has been for a number of months, both in the workplace and outside of it,” said John Dony, Itasca, Illinois-based senior director of thought leadership at the National Safety Council.

“Personal stressors and work stressors often compound one another, and after a challenging year, it’s understandable why some workers and employers … may be falling behind on or getting distracted when it comes to adherence to proper pandemic protocols.”

Mr. Dony said the vaccine rollout has created significant optimism, “which can, in turn, make it easy to let down our guard around the basics such as physical distancing, masks, disinfection, testing and contact tracing.”

Vik Ramaswamy, Nashville, Tennessee-based senior risk control manager for Safety National Casualty Corp., said workplace “leadership is having a much more challenging time (and) over the next month it is going to get much, much harder. … Everybody is getting fatigued.”

“We are seeing a lot of fatigue around those safety issues,” said Martine Wells, a Denver-based shareholder with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, which represents employers. “It’s a profound slowdown. … People walking around without masks. Those fundamental tenets of masking, distancing, hygiene and airflow are the things that many employers and businesses have deprioritized worrying about.”

Ms. Wells added: “The employers are saying ‘vaccine this, vaccine that.’ Until we reach herd immunity, all of the safety stuff is more important than the vaccine.”
“There were people in the beginning who were saying, ‘We can do this’ … and now you see people with masks down and a why-bother attitude,” said Linda Tapp, Madison, New Jersey-based president of safety training company SafetyFUNdamentals and member of the board of directors of the American Society of Safety Professionals. “It’s important for employers to stay on top of safety and not get complacent themselves.”

Pat Tyson, partner and head of the OSHA practice in the Atlanta office of Constangy, Brooks, Smith and Prophete LLP, said employers are increasingly aware of the challenges.

“It’s hard to enforce mask wearing all the time, and it’s hard to enforce social distancing all the time,” he said. “We have clients that have monitors going around all the time to make sure (workers) are social distancing and disciplining those who aren’t.”

Communication is the answer, experts say.

Mr. Dony said employers should reinforce the basic risk mitigations put in place in the early days of the pandemic and stress their continued importance during the vaccine rollout.

Louise Vallee, Morristown, New Jersey-based vice president of risk engineering for Crum & Forster Holdings Corp., wrote in an email that employers should “emphasize meaningful and ongoing two-way communication with their employees” to battle pandemic fatigue.

“While this has always been an important characteristic of any successful company, during this ‘new normal,’ employers should redouble their strong leadership-by-example efforts, reassuring their teams they are an integral part of the company, while also recognizing employee contributions and celebrating meaningful events,” she said. “In other words — making them feel as fully engaged and heard as possible.”

More insurance and workers compensation news on the coronavirus crisis here