The country has been swept up in a frenzy of confusing COVID rules and apathetic bosses and co-workers. A recent investigative piece from Gothamist found that in New Jersey, nearly 2,700 complaints about unsafe workplace COVID protocols have been filed throughout the year.

While restaurants and government offices are the most noticeable rule-breakers, employees from all ranks and files reported feeling like their customer base or coworkers aren’t taking COVID that seriously. The rate of workers quitting has also doubled in the past year – is it possible that the two are connected?

Uncertainty for the future

The news has been unfortunate and grim – it seems like no one is getting this COVID thing right. What does that do for work morale, and trust in one’s company at large?

A recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology investigated this phenomenon and tried to explore how and why stimuli about unresponsive workplaces can impact feelings about your own workplace. The core belief was essentially defined using one word: uncertainty.

The theory here is that excessive news consumption both about COVID and about the way that other venues are handling COVID protocols might be directly in contrast to the things your own workplace is doing, but you’ll find yourself drawing comparisons – your boss sent a confusing email or your HR department’s COVID resources were outdated, so you begin to fantasize about all the ways that your job is confusing and disorganized.

As you begin to invest in the notion that your workplace is inept (primarily because of the deluge of news stories drowning you in other company’s ineptitudes), a sense of uncertainty is created which impacts both your creativity and your goal progress. How can you feel the freedom to be creative in your job when your mental bandwidth is being used for worrying about your coworkers’ masking status? How can you be goal-oriented if you’re not sure whether or not you’ll be “back to normal” one day, and indefinitely working from home the next?

How do I get a clear answer?

Getting anything other than a mixed message can be extremely difficult and bewilderingly complicated, but not completely impossible.

First, look to your local government to see if there are any hard and fast rules. Sometimes, state rules are so convoluted that in many workplaces it’s hard to delineate where the science begins and the game of bureaucracy ends. Of course, wearing a mask is a given in most office environments, as it falls under one of OSHA’s areas of substantial or high community transmission. But what if you see one big firm in New York returning to entirely remote working citing safety concerns, and another in Florida inviting all employees back to headquarters with no mask mandates? What does that make you think about your own company’s COVID protocol?

Sometimes, the round peg of another company’s problematic COVID rules doesn’t fit into the square hole of your own. Your workplace might have entirely different issues than a large office that requires employees to go in on alternate days or socially distance in their fancy campus cafeterias. You want to know how to keep yourself safe above all else. But rather than rely on scuttlebutt and scary news, you can determine if your workplace is safe enough for you with just a few questions – some you can answer for yourself, and all that are professional enough to ask an employer.

  • How strict is the mask mandate? What’s the culture around adhering to it?
  • How would a mask mandate be enforced?
  • Is social distancing still a thing?
  • Is the office cleaned more frequently?
  • How’s the airflow? Do we have HEPA filters?
  • What are the elevators like? Are they cramped, and slow?
  • What’s the transmission rate in my area?
  • What’s the vaccination rate in my area?

Helping your workplace

It’s entirely possible that your workplace is floundering when confronted with the constant shifting of protocols, and the news about companies consistently disregarding the health and safety of their workforce might be poisoning the well of your own office culture. The uncertainty, as the research says, is the real killer of morale and a dampener of hope. So how does that get fixed from the inside out?

First, keep rumors at bay, and kill gossip before it starts. While it’s appropriate to commiserate with your coworkers about confusing COVID protocols, as that type of discourse fuels potential solutions, try to steer away from an “us vs them” attitude. While it might be juicy to chit-chat with coworkers about who’s a rule-breaker and who’s a hypochondriac (among your peers and bosses alike), in the long run, it fosters unnecessary tension between those who believe what you do and those who don’t. Don’t sweat the small stuff unless you feel like you’re in danger.

Another helpful tool is, of course, transparency when there are unknown factors that might change the nature of things. Unless your boss was around in 1912, chances are that they don’t have an arsenal of tools to help guide employees through a pandemic, and they might be flying blind as well. You’re well within your rights to voice discomfort with your organization if you feel they’re not open about why they’re making the choices they make. And if they don’t seem to be acting in your best interest, causing you to feel unsafe, you can always contact OSHA and file a complaint.

Helping yourself

While it’s important to grease the wheels of your office machine in whatever way you can, looking out for your own best interest is also imperative when your health is on the line. Another recent study from Psychological Science notes that the more misinformation someone hears, the more likely they are to spread it around, even if they know for a fact that it’s fake. There, the buck stops with you – even if you hear something ludicrous and outlandish from a coworker about the way your office will be operating in the coming months, don’t run around telling others in your office, even if it’s only in jest.

Next, you might be the person in charge of pandemic preparation in your small business. If you’re trying to craft COVID etiquette for your workplace, remember to tell people that you’re doing the best you can with the tools the CDC has given (and then follow that up by staying on top of the latest announcements). Transparency is also key here, as is preventing the spread of mistrust and skepticism. The more open you are to dialogue about COVID concerns, the quicker they can speak to you, and get back to their various daily tasks.

The last way to help your workplace and yourself is to stay focused on the task at hand. It might seem hard to devote yourself fully to work when you hardly know where you’ll be working in the next month. But take it day by day, and enjoy the workspace you have now, even if your new digs seem uncertain. Don’t let the stress of an overwhelming, ambiguous future impact your work today – work that could, in fact, be making the future a better place.

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