6 Ways Workplaces Can Support Their Essential Staff

2020 brought the term “essential worker” to our everyday language. To the average consumer, it wasn’t something they thought about before.

Depending on which department of the government you’re referring to, the definition of front line employees, or essential workers, varies. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has a list of jobs they deem to be essential in view of vaccination requirements. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) has a list of workers who are critical to the nation’s infrastructure

Some states base their definition on the federal standard or create their own, while other states have no definition at all. Within an organization or business, there may be additional definitions regarding who is necessary to keep things going. 

In other words, the emerging picture is that there is no clear, unified definition of who an essential front line worker (or industry) is. It’s like a patchwork quilt.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in providing career outlooks for jobs in those essential fields as listed by CISA, has tried to help provide better detail. In a nutshell (but not an official definition), an essential front line employee is someone who is necessary for:

  • Public health and safety
  • Providing necessary products
  • Supporting infrastructure

What we’re talking about are front line employees, the people who went to work during the pandemic when so many others worked from home. 

They worked in utilities, such as power and water treatment, or in food production. They answered emergency calls. They showed up to drive trucks and keep the shipping and supply chain going. They worked in critical retail, like grocery and hardware stores. And they helped take care of the children of other essential workers through daycare.

While times have changed since the start of the pandemic, it’s still important to support your essential staff who helped you get through. You’ll need to rely heavily on them again, whether it’s another national emergency or daily operations, and we’ll show you how you can be ready for whatever lurks down the road.

1. Keep front line staff safe

Work injuries cost about $170 billion in 2019. Those are pre-pandemic numbers. You can bet front line staff suffered from illness at increased rates during the pandemic.

For you, it’s a significant loss of productivity, medical expense, and damage to your most valuable asset, your people.

What are you doing to keep people safe? Do you have a safety plan? An ongoing safety program? A safety officer or someone either dedicated or assigned to monitor and improve safety? If not, if you’re just making it up as you go, do you think your essential front line staff feel safe? Do they  think you even care if they are safe?

Nothing happens by accident, except accidents. Plan for safety.

2. Get serious about mental health

“No pressure, essential worker, but while there’s a virus raging across the nation you still have to go to work.”

That’s basically what we had for over a year, and that, along with the pressure of getting more work done with fewer people, creates high levels of anxiety. Stress kills. Just because the pandemic landscape has changed doesn’t mean the stress levels go down.

A 2020 survey revealed that 53% of adults in the U.S. were suffering from worry and stress due to the pandemic. Imagine what your front line workers felt? We promise you many of your employees already struggled with mental health issues, and bearing the brunt of responsibility by being on the front line has only added to it.

A 2017 email from Madalyn Parker to her boss, in which she explained she needed a few days off to focus on her mental health, went viral. Why?

Because we all recognize the need.

Getting serious about employee mental health might mean giving employees a day off as a mental health day. It might mean offering free professional counseling to employees who want to make use of it. 

Mental health isn’t just something you think about in terms of burnout and how it costs you in productivity and turnover. It’s about caring about the well-being of your essential employees who have a keystone function. If they crumble, so do we.

3. Pay them well

Sadly, most front line workers tend to earn lower wages in comparison to other workers. That’s completely backwards.

We define them as incredibly important. We assign duties to them that the rest of the population relies on. We put them in harm’s way, or ask them to perform their work when times are very difficult.

And we pay them less?

Too many essential workers watched others spend a year working from home, via the internet, while they could not have such an option. Being told you’re “essential” without seeing it backed up by action and pay is hollow and hurtful.

Show your front line staff you can’t do without them by putting it in their paycheck and benefits.

4. Reduce daily friction

We’re not talking about disagreements among your staff. We’re talking about all the little things that frustrate and wear your employees down over time.

If you make someone pull 100 pounds, why not give them a cart with wheels? And if you require your employees to follow protocols or use different systems and tools, why not make them user friendly?

One of the reasons we integrated so much into our employee scheduling system, adding much more than a manager might need, is because we wanted the entire user experience—from the back office to the front counter—to be frictionless.

Where do your employees spend a lot of time? On their phone.

We put everything they need to know about their work schedule, including communication with you and others, on their phone.

What do your employees want from their schedule? Power to control their own life and have a better work-life balance.

So we made flexible scheduling easy, letting them swap shifts, claim shifts, and work together to build a schedule they liked. They also were empowered to help out coworkers who had a shift conflict by trading and maybe calling on that favor next time.

Reduce the friction. Get the hassle of what happens at the periphery of their job out of their way so they can enjoy their work.

5. Make information useful and accessible

Information can come at you from a fire hose, or the sink faucet. 

In other words, information isn’t useful if the methods used to deliver it overwhelm. How do you overwhelm your front line employees?

For starters, you probably have too many avenues for them to check to find necessary information. Intranets, group texts, mass emails, the bulletin board in the break room, the company social media page—you get the idea. Streamline where you share information. Make the platform parallel to the type of information you’re sharing.

Reduce the information to only what is necessary, and provide it to only those who need it. Don’t say in 5000 words what you can say in 50.

People quickly learn to ignore someone who constantly shoves information at them, and someday they’re going to miss something important. Your front line employees have to know that when you give them information, you wouldn’t waste their time with excess. They know to pay attention.

6. Improve how you communicate

Part of that information we just talked about is communication between you and your team.

Poor employee communication is expensive for business owners, not just in the dollar amount because of mistakes or turnover, but also in efficiency and morale. If you’re not confident in your communication abilities, you have a couple of options:

  • Survey employees about how it’s going.
  • Find a coach, mentor, or class to learn to improve.

Communication is absolutely worth the effort to always be learning and improving. It doesn’t matter how great you think you are as a communicator; there is always room for improvement. The fact that you’re making an effort to improve is a signal to your front line employees that they matter.

Your essential workers are still essential

The pandemic and its accompanying rules have changed a lot over the past few years, and so has how we view essential workers. 

But here’s the thing: they are still essential.

We saw it firsthand, and we now realize that we can’t do without them. You can’t do without them. And if you’re going to be prepared for the next unpredictable event, whether it’s a pandemic or a natural disaster or something you couldn’t possibly plan for, you have to make supporting your essential staff part of your standard operating procedure.

Someday they’re going to come through for you—and everyone else—all over again. The time to build them up is now, whether you begin planning to put these practices to work, or decide to change the tools you use to even make these ideas possible.

We know the importance of your front line workers, and we’d love to talk to you about how we can help you take the step forward in supporting your essential staff.

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