Some workers are growing tired of ongoing pandemic-related restrictions and becoming lax in their compliance with COVID-19-related protocols such as mask wearing. Their “pandemic fatigue” is creating challenges and legal risks that employers need to address.
David Barron, an attorney with Cozen O’Connor in Houston, said a lack of diligence in following safety protocols “is especially problematic right now because OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] and several state safety agencies are increasing enforcement efforts through new standards and regulations, which raises the stakes for noncompliance.”
There are many causes for pandemic fatigue, including the inconvenience of measures like masks and growing complacency as news improves and vaccinations increase, Barron said.
But employers risk undermining their entire safety programs if they pick and choose which rules to enforce, he cautioned. For example, Barron asked, if an employee can ignore a mask requirement, why not ignore a hard hat or safety glasses requirement?
Pandemic fatigue also can manifest itself in noticeable changes in employees’ mood or demeanor and result in an inability to concentrate due to anxiety and sleeplessness, said Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth at Work in Chicago.
Traditional avenues of relieving stress, like going to the gym, are not viable options for many, said Caitlin O’Fallon, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in White Plains, N.Y.
In essence, “pandemic fatigue is the result of living and working under COVID-19 restrictions for a prolonged period,” said Anthony Mingione, an attorney with Blank Rome in New York City. “Social distancing, avoiding gatherings and constant hypervigilance against an invisible threat have taken their toll on society, and it is not at all surprising to see their effects in the workplace.”
Pandemic fatigue causes disengagement, which can result in performance problems or policy violations, Mingione noted.
In some instances, pandemic fatigue is leading to co-worker conflicts, Weiss said. For example, some employees become angry when colleagues lower their face coverings either below the nose or to chin-strap level, especially when the boss or customers walk away. Reduced willingness to wear masks on videoconferences from the office is another source of friction among onsite co-workers.
Colleagues also are upset by those less willing to stay 6 feet away from others or who don’t give the right of way to others in hallways.
Sometimes, pandemic fatigue can lead to mental illness or exacerbate existing conditions. “Employers that do not address these issues risk exposure to future disability claims,” Mingione said.
“Pandemic fatigue can also cause a lack of adherence to safety protocols, which can open up employers to exposure if those safety failings lead to COVID-19 outbreaks in the workforce or in third parties who deal with a company’s workers,” he added.
Employers have a legal obligation to ensure that COVID-19-related health and safety protocols are complied with in the workplace, noted Jenifer Bologna, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in White Plains, N.Y.
Barron suggested three proactive steps to address pandemic fatigue:
- Consistently enforce safety rules.
- Make safety a part of the culture. COVID-19-related protocols should not be separated from other safety rules.
- Don’t just use the stick. Incentivize employees to follow safety rules and reward good behavior regularly.
Weiss said that because pandemic fatigue already exists in virtually every workplace, managers and HR professionals should consider focusing on the “four C’s”:
- Compliments: Share legitimate positive feedback, which can mean more now than it did before.
- Compassion: Acknowledge and recognize the challenge we all are facing.
- Calmness: Provide a sense of stability.
- Confidence: Express that the future looks bright, even if exact timing for when we can relax COVID-19 safety protocols is uncertain.
Make sure to talk to every employee — both remote and onsite — regarding the importance of “PAIR,” he added:
- Patience: Note that returning to normalcy is a process that takes time but all employees should remain positive about the future.
- Adaptability: Cite other difficult periods that your organization not only survived and but also emerged from even stronger. Note any of the employee’s own efforts and successes at adapting during the last 12 months.
- Innovation: Highlight specific organizational, customer or product innovations spurred by the pandemic that will serve the company into the future. Encourage the employee to be part of this process and offer ideas, if realistic.
- Resilience: Express confidence in and appreciation for the employee’s individual commitment to stay the course.
Be consistent in your treatment of staff and check in with employees to ensure that they are OK, said Michelle Phillips, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in White Plains, N.Y. A worker may be coping with a family member or close friend who tested positive for COVID-19; may have a relative who is in a hospital or health care facility that is not allowing any visitors; or may have recently lost a family member, close friend or co-worker.