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designing-a-safe-workplace-during-coronavirus.jpg Jeenah Moon / Stringer / Getty Images News
Essential workers in restaurants must have their emotional health cared for during this pandemic. A psychologist explains how to create a healthy workplace.

How to build a culture of resilience during a pandemic

Designing a safe workplace is not just about protecting employees physically from coronavirus but also promoting emotional health

Joan Freedman, Ph.D. is an executive coach and clinical psychologist based in Beverly Hills, Calif. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

In the initial acute phase of COVID-19, restaurant leaders were tasked with creating and implementing necessary safety procedures to protect the physical health of workers and customers. Now, as we continue to navigate the chronic phase of the pandemic, the new challenge is to protect the emotional health of a traumatized workforce experiencing elevated levels of anxiety, stress and uncertainty about the future.

In the old days — that is, before March 2020 — no one would have thought of restaurant employees as front-line workers. But in the age of COVID-19, restaurants have become battlegrounds, where “essential” staff are exposed to daily health risks, facing off against an often hostile, non-mask-wearing (and non-tipping) public.

Even changes to the physical layout of a restaurant — barriers to entry, contactless pickup protocols, and social-distancing requirements — create an “us-versus-them” environment, radically different from the gathering places of yore where one could enjoy a relaxing meal or an energizing espresso. 

JF_Headshot_black_top.jpegPhoto: Joan Freedman

Going forward, how can restaurant executives promote a culture of resilience and resolve? By attending to three interwoven and mutually reinforcing themes — because you can’t expect workers to take great care of their customers if they don’t feel taken care of themselves.

Create psychologically healthy workplaces

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers detailed guidelines for reopening restaurants safely, including protocols ranging from dining room capacity reduction and social distancing, to taking worker temperatures and wearing masks. But the CDC also urges employers to look after the wellbeing of employees, including promoting healthful eating, exercise, getting enough sleep and taking time to unwind.

Consider what stressors your workers are facing. Are they responsible for childcare or eldercare? Are they managing their children’s distanced learning? Are they taking public transportation to work?  Do they have any underlying health conditions making them more vulnerable to the virus?  All of these factors can have a profound impact on an employee’s mental health and ability to focus at work.

At the beginning of every health screening, consider taking emotional temperature checks as well. How are your people doing?  What are they struggling with? What do they need to feel safe at work? Showing genuine concern will go a long way towards building trust and engagement.

Your human resource partners can also help ensure employees have access to a range of mental-health services, such as employee assistance programs, mindfulness-based stress-reduction programs and memberships to online health-and-wellness platforms, such as yoga and meditation.

Keep up communication

At times of crisis and uncertainty, you can’t over-communicate with your people. Lack of information can lead to an increase in anxiety and stress, and a decrease in engagement and performance.  When information is not forthcoming, people will often “fill in the blanks” with their own fears.

Be clear about direction. Be transparent, when you can.  If you don’t know something, share that too. Workers will appreciate your honesty. Lead with a focus on empathy, compassion and humility.

Ensure that corporate communications promote your culture. What values and behaviors are necessary right now?  Share them. Acknowledge those behaviors when you connect with workers — highlight your heroes. Reward people for embodying the organization’s values and putting them into action.

Give them a mission

Leading with organizational mission and purpose has enormous adaptive value right now. No one knows when life will go “back to normal,” or even what normal will look like.  But we do know that an entire workforce has been traumatized and connecting people to a greater purpose can help promote resilience and recovery. 

Research has shown that a shared vision or sense of purpose is the strongest predictor of organizational effectiveness, engagement and product innovation.  Neuroimaging and hormonal studies demonstrate that people are more open to ideas, more connected, and more engaged when they have a clear sense of purpose and when they know they’re cared about.

Think about how your organization puts its values into action.  If, because of COVID-based restrictions, you’re not able to embody your values in the same way, how else might you do so?

Engage with your teams.  Encourage workers to share their ideas on how to carry out the mission.  Given the current environment, are there new ways of doing business? How can you work with what you have?  Be sure to engage those front-line employees, the ones in the trenches.  They’ll often have important perspectives to share.

The other day I was talking with the barista at my neighborhood coffeehouse. Overall, she was positive about the guidance she was getting from her corporate headquarters. When asked if there was one thing management could be doing better to help their workers, her reply was simple. She said communications were good, and the company was staying on point with brand.

Then she added, “but don’t overlook the human touch.”

Not a bad recipe for resilience.

Joan Freedman partners with leaders and their teams to help develop talent, foster employee engagement, and create psychologically healthy workplace environments. 

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