The start of a new year is traditionally a time of setting goals and feeling motivated, especially if you are lucky enough to have a week or two away from the office. 

So far, however, 2022 seems all COVID doom and gloom — out-of-control Omicron, empty supermarket shelves and for working parents in Queensland, a two-week delay to the school year. 

No wonder many of us are exhausted already. 

But, it doesn’t have to be this way, says Ai Group’s National Manager – Work Health Safety Consulting Services Trinette Jaeschke. 

“There are a lot of people who have come back to work, and they are still exhausted and thinking: ‘What happened last year is happening again this year,’” she said. 

“But it doesn’t have to be. We can look at it in a totally different light. I’m a big believer that your life is made up of whatever you want it to be. 

“If you want it to be doom and gloom because COVID is around and you want to focus on that, then that is what your outcome is going to be. 

“I have COVID around me all the time because of the work I do, so it’s really important for me to be able to focus on other things around me and hone in on those positive aspects.” 

It is natural, however, that some staff will feel anxious about returning to the workplace. Therefore, employers should continue working with employees to allay their fears. 

“I’ve been speaking to members over the past couple of days and they say there are workers who are anxious about coming back to work and are worried about how their business is handling COVID,” Ms Jaeschke said. 

“They (workers) are really worried employers don’t care about their safety and whether they have their infection control in place. 

“Obviously, Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) are hard to come by, so if employers don’t have those, workers are concerned their employers aren’t doing the right thing.” 

Consultation continues to be key. 

“Employees tend to get anxious when they feel something is out of their control and they aren’t aware of what’s going on or don’t trust what’s going on, or the people, around them,” Ms Jaeschke said. 

“One of the suggestions I’ve made to HR/WHS and managers concerning the anxious feelings surrounding COVID in the workplace is to make a big effort to ensure managers and supervisors are spending time to talk and listen to their staff. 

“I’m not talking about a quick toolbox meeting to ‘tick the boxes’. What I’m finding is that people really don’t know how to consult effectively. 

“The key is to let everyone know what the facts are, listen effectively and demonstrate to employees how they have been heard. 

“This might seem straightforward, but I’m seeing a lot of members who are fearful themselves and feel like they have to solve all the problems, and these feelings are spreading to workers.” 

Work together, Ms Jaeschke said. 

It's not an us-and-them scenario,” she added. 

“We're all in this together. Employers don’t have any control over COVID, but they do have the ability to work with employees to make things better in the workplace.” 

Try these tips. 

  • Review your COVIDSafe risk assessment and plan in a workshop arrangement (or WH&S Committee) where workers and managers can discuss the new directions and any new issues workers are facing. Whiteboard any issues and actions which need to be taken.  Re-communicate the plan to everyone. 
  • Highlight the positive risk control measures in the COVIDSafe plan and remind everyone about the good behaviours and great work that is being done to keep them COVID-free in the workplace. “If you are sanitising and you’ve got cleaners coming in more frequently, promote this to help ease some anxieties workers are feeling,” Ms Jaeschke said. "Businesses cannot rely solely on RATs or vaccinations."
  • Share with all staff (or at a minimum, managers) Ai Group’s Member Advices when they are released so everyone can stay up to date together. This will help to generate a culture of “we are all in this together” rather than an “us vs them” mentality. 
  • Be consistent with communication and transparent with information. Generating trust takes time. 
  • Be vulnerable and ask employees what is worrying them or causing them concern.  This is where you can act straight away rather than letting issues fester and become ugly. 

“The key is to listen to workers, engage with them and act on what they have to say,” Ms Jaeschke said. 

“We need to lift up workers within the business so they feel like they have some kind of control and the way to do that is through true consultation.” 

Ms Jaeschke has advice for employees, too. 

“Raise any concerns you have with your manager or supervisor,” she said. 

“If you are not comfortable about something, highlight it because that is what safety is all about: identifying what could go wrong and then fixing it.” 

Finally, if there is a culture of fear in the workplace, employers need to focus on upskilling and training managers and supervisors around simple people skills. 

“Managers who are technically orientated can sometimes lack people skills which makes it harder for employees to open up and share what is on their mind,” Ms Jaeschke said. 

“Do all you can to help your workers feel safe and supported.” 

For further help, please phone our Workplace Advice Line — Ai Group’s national telephone advisory service for on-the-spot workplace-related questions — on 1300 55 66 77. 

Easy like Monday morning 

Wendy Larter

Wendy Larter is the Senior Content Writer at Ai Group. She is a journalist with more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter, features writer, contributor and sub-editor for newspapers and magazines including The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and Metro, News of the World, The Times and Elle in the UK.