In this episode of Workplace Matters we talked with Rich Gassman, director of Safety and Compliance for Engineering Services and Products Company in Dyersville, Iowa. Rich’s business was able to remain open during the pandemic, however they had to change many of the ways they work to keep employees safe from COVID-19. We asked Rich about what they did to protect employees and the challenges and lessons which came with those decisions.
Host: Michael Guhin
Guest: Rich Gassman
CDC Resuming Business Toolkit:
CDC Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019:
Returning To Work
Michael: You’re listening to Workplace Matters. As the country begins to reopen, there are changes that must be made to every workplace in order to maintain the safety and health of employees during the pandemic. We talked with Rich Gassman about what steps employers should be taking and how these steps should be communicated to employees.
Michael: Before discussing what reopening looks like, it’s important to understand when to reopen it all. The best way to know this is by communicating with state and local officials. They will have the most accurate information about when it is safe to resume business. Once a business opens, there should be prepared measures in place to maintain the health and safety of all employees.
Rich: Throughout this whole thing our number one priority has been keeping our people safe.
Michael: Rich Gassman is the director of Safety and Compliance for an engineering services and products company, in Dyersville Iowa.
Rich: You know, we have people here all across all age groups. We want to just make sure that we’re watching out for them. Our V.P. of operations has made that explicitly clear. And he’s given one, of the things that I’m blessed with as he’s given us the opportunity and the ability to do these things. You know, he says if it needs to be done, then we do it.
Michael: Rich’s business was considered essential and has not shut down. He and his company have implemented various strategies to continue safe operations.
Rich: We knew this was going to, had the potential to be problematic. We started purchasing some PPE just to make sure that we had it, started producing some cleaning supplies to make sure that we were covered along those lines. Immediately, we started cleaning more. We had our cleaning staffs go out and clean and sanitize a whole lot more than what they were doing before. Not that they weren’t doing a good job before. But we wanted to make sure we had everything covered. We have a fairly strict attendance policy and we relaxed that. We shut down all of our face to face meetings. All meetings now, for the most part, are done through Zoom. We restricted travel between our buildings. So there’s four main buildings on our campus. We put the policy in place that if you’re assigned to a certain building and you need to go to another building, you have to wear a mask to be able to do that. We discourage that travel, but folks like myself, maintenance, those types of folks didn’t have to go, you know, get out, see those other buildings so we put those policies in place. We fairly quickly went to telecommuting. So we have about 28 of our people right now that are at home working from home, mostly customer service, procurement, logistics, all the folks that could work at home. We do have a retail facility here. We closed that right away.
Rich: No customers are allowed into our retail store right now. A couple of other things that we did. We closed our break rooms. We just didn’t want people gathering in our break rooms. We shut the coffee makers off. That tended to be a focal point. We did leave the microwave ovens in there. We were a little worried early on with some of the shortages at grocery stores that people wouldn’t have access to ready to eat meals. So we wanted them to have something where they could eat their food, but we required social distancing when we did that.
Michael: Many of the changes made were to increase the ability to social distance during work. Employees wore PPE as needed and increased the cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces. All of these strategies are recommended by the CDC. Before returning to work the logistics of implementing these recommendations must be planned out for every business, have clear policies and procedures which outline how to maintain social distancing, PPE and disinfecting until public health officials recommend otherwise. The CDC has created a Resuming Business Toolkit to help with this process and it will be linked in the description of this episode.
Rich: We do have a pandemic response plan. If something happens, if we get a positive test here, there’s a plan on what we’re going to do and how we’re going to clean that up. We’re going to follow CDC and IDPH guidelines. There’s a team that has all the PPE. We have PPE pre-ready for when these things happen. If this thing ever happens to us, then we’ll respond very, very quickly. With those types of plans. It’s hard to cover all bases. But we want to make sure that we know that continuity of if our V.P. of operations gets sick. What do we do? Who’s next in line? And just following that chain of command that we need to be able to do. You know, at what point do we, you know do we shut facilities down? Those types of things are things that we’re looking at.
Rich: We had it the other day. We had somebody that that called in sick. Right away, there’s that fear of, oh, my gosh, they have COVID-19. What do we do? People know what our plan is. If there is if there is a positive case here, they will know what we’re going to do. That’s helped a lot.
Michael: Have a pandemic response plan and communicated it to all employees. Having a plan ensures employees know what to do if someone in the workplace tests positive. Beyond having PPE ready and establishing a chain of command, CDC recommends cross training employees to do essential functions in case employees who normally are responsible for those functions test positive. Determined how to operate if there are absenteeism spikes and always have an open line of communication between employees and employers.
Rich: The other thing that’s been really important to us is maintaining that clear line of communication. We found out early j ust how fast the grapevines in factories can move, you know, probably the first two to three weeks. Most of my job was walking around is calming the fears. This is what happened. You know, it just clarifying the circumstances that we’re in. And reassuring everybody that it’s OK to feel this way. We in the management team feel the same way. We’re worried about this. You know, I have elderly parents. We understand and we want to be here for you. But what we’re still seeing, if somebody calls in sick today, you know, there’s that little bit of panic. Oh, my God. They. You know, why are they sick? We are asking our folks to disclose that information if they if they can. Let us know that they tested positive. They were around somebody that was, you know, that whole self disclosure that CDC recommends. And that’s been working fairly well for us so far. You know, my role has changed significantly through this. I mean, we still do our safety. We still do our health. But it’s mostly COVID-19 related things right now. And my goal is to spend 80 percent of my time on the plant floor. And that’s what I do. I’m just out talking to people, making sure they feel good about and confident that they can be here safely.
Michael: Maintaining communication between management and employees is crucial. It helps make workers feel more protected, makes it easier for employees to come forward if they feel sick, or if someone in their family feels sick, and everyone better understands the policies and procedures established to protect workers from COVID-19. CDC has outlined recommendations for all types of businesses. Those recommendations, as well as other employer best practices, will be linked in the description of this episode.
Rich: The biggest thing that I could can tell another employers transparency. Just maintain that open line of communication.
Michael: Workplace Matters is supported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. To listen to more podcasts, view our ongoing video series, or for more information about us, visit Healthier Workforce Center dot org. Thank you.
This episode of Workplace Matters looks at what employers can do to better their employee’s mental health amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Stress has always been present in the workplace, but for many this time is especially stressful. How can employers ease that stress for their employees? We talked with Dr. Saba Ali, professor of counseling psychology in the College of Education at the University of Iowa about what employers can do.
Host: Michael Guhin
Guest: Dr. Saba Ali
Mental Health During Covid-19
Michael: You’re listening to workplace matters. Mental health and the workplace has previously been an important issue for employers to focus on. But now during COVID-19, employee mental health is becoming more important than ever. We talked with Dr. Saba Ali, professor of counseling psychology in the College of Education at the University of Iowa, about what employers should know about their employees’ mental health right now and what can be done to help improve it.
Michael: Each workplace is different and carries its own set of stress factors. Factors which may become more prevalent during COVID, along with a new set of challenges, especially for essential workers and small businesses.
Dr. Ali: A Small business needs to make money, to have business, to make sure that their branding is out there just in normal times. But obviously with COVID-19, they can’t do the usual kinds of activities or services that they usually provide, and that’s a huge financial stress. It’s a huge stress on small businesses. It’s a huge stress on workers worried about paychecks, worried about how they’re going to feed their families, worried about if they can get back to business and when they can get back to business. Certainly, that’s a huge part of stress right now. I think that most Americans are living under. Most people in the world right now are living under, but it’s exacerbated for anybody who owns a small business right now, that’s in the service industry.
Michael: Employers must be more vigilant than ever for the signs and symptoms of stress so that if an employee is feeling overly stressed, they can get help as soon as they need to. So what are the signs and symptoms? What should employers look for?
Dr. Ali: We can look at some of the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and see some of the stressors. You know, increased irritability, increased worry, loss of appetite, an inability to concentrate on tasks. Those are usually really good signs that somebody is experiencing stress. Sometimes, you know, people are more verbal, you know, different people, different personality. Some people express their frustration and their stress more openly. Others, you would have to look for some of these signs. I think one of the biggest signs of stress right now would be at really a decreased ability to concentrate and heightened levels of sort of physiological arousal. So, you know, feeling jittery, feeling nervous. Those kinds of things that you might be able to actually see in a person rather than maybe hear it. And again, some people are much more verbal about their feelings of stress or the feelings of fear and others.
Michael: Each workplace should have an individualized approach for their specific employees. But are there best practices that can be applied to all businesses? Dr. Lee identified three practices which can be implemented into workplaces to alleviate stress.
Dr. Ali: It really depends on what type of workplace you’re in right now. I mean, obviously, some people are much more frontline than others in this whole pandemic. But I would say that there’s three things across the board that I would really encourage supervisors to think about with their employees. The first one would be to the extent that you can decrease mental load or cognitive load in your employees, it would be a really helpful thing. So thinking about it from the perspective of trying to help workers do the tasks that are essential right now versus trying to, you know, increase productivity or think about how how people need to get things done is really by reducing the load and letting people concentrate on the tasks that are most important, really, really will help people in the workplace to kind of focus their energies and decrease stress of thinking about a lot of different things at the same time. So that would be, I think, the number one thing. I think one of the other things is information is really helpful for workers in this time. So I think transparency, but balancing that with hopefulness.
Dr. Ali: So transparency about what’s going on, maybe financially for a company or what’s going on in terms of for health care workers, what’s going on with the protective gear that they need. Being transparent about that, but also being hopeful that things can get better, that they will get better. But being practical about that information, not lying to people. Being very careful about how you give people the information, but also making sure that you’re transparent and let people know what really is going on. I think the third thing is this thinking about if you’ve ever heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s like a pyramid.
Michael: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a psychological theory which proposes that in order for people to be motivated and healthy, they need to have five intrinsic human needs satisfied physiological needs, safety, love or belonging, esteem, and finally self-actualization.
Dr. Ali: So I think right now what we need to do is concentrate on that bottom of the pyramid, make sure people’s physiological needs are met, make sure they have food, shelter, those kinds of things. You also want to create a sense of belonging or a sense of collectivism around this whole pandemic and how we’re dealing with it. When people feel those kinds of two things, they feel safer if their needs are met at the very basic level. They just tend to feel safer. And that reduces some of the stress. And stress really interferes with concentration, if you can help people deal with that kind of stress and anxiety that they’re experiencing, then you can’t get them to maybe concentrate and focus a little bit more on the job at hand and again, depending on what kind of work you’re doing. If you’re an essential worker right now, you need all the energy you can to do the job. So if you can help people concentrate a little bit better by helping them get mental health resources that they need, then, people are safer in general because the people who are doing the essential work right now are more focused on their job and not worrying about everything else. So I think mental health has to be a priority to help people to reduce stress so that we’re all just safer.
Michael: Moving forward, keeping the mental health home employees in mind during the COVID-19 pandemic should be a priority to maintain productivity and to continue to have our essential workers healthy. And this doesn’t need to be a fight that employers need to go through alone.
Dr. Ali: They’re doing telehealth right now or tele therapy, which I think is really helpful. So certainly mental health agencies, but they’re also things like apps that do calming breathing techniques, relaxation techniques that I think can be really helpful. There’s a lot of information online right now through the American Psychological Association, through the American Counseling Association that can help with really sort of basic information about what employers can do for their employees at this time and ways that they can introduce stress reduction in the workplace. But I do recommend sort of being the idea of apps or anything that sort of helps to focus people on what they need. I think also mental health breaks during the day are really important, like letting people have that time, you know, 10 minutes to just walk around outside or whatever it is that they need to do to just again reduce that anxiety and stress so they can come back in and concentrate on what they need to do.
Michael: Workplace Matters is supported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Visit Healthier Workforce Center .org to listen to more podcasts and view our ongoing video series. And from all of us at the Healthier Workforce Center, stay safe and healthy.