Pandemic Resentment on the Front Line

The pandemic created a lot of divisions between people. At many organizations one such division is between those who had to continue to go to the workplace and those who were able to work from home. In healthcare, mining, manufacturing, and retail, those delivering services or producing goods had to come to work, despite the COVID risks. Those in support functions (management, HR, finance, etc.) worked from home. While working from home had its challenges (e.g., trying to focus with kids home, lack of workspace, endless Zoom meetings), it significantly reduced the risk of COVID. Not surprisingly, many who had to continue to go to a workplace with others and put themselves at risk became resentful. They often worked short-handed and with constant fear of getting COVID. The fear and exhaustion were exacerbated by thinking about their bosses and others working from the comfort and safety of their homes. On the other side, those who worked from home often didn’t have a choice and so resented being blamed for something they had no control over.

This built-up resentment is not healthy for relationships, morale, or the culture. With on-going labor shortages, employee retention is extremely important right now. Thus, it is essential that organizations deal with resentment and rebuild relationships and morale. Several of our clients have asked us to help deal with this resentment as their employees are returning to the workplace. While the exact strategies depend on the circumstances, there are a few things to consider:

  • Talk openly about it. Acknowledge the sacrifice and risk of those who came into work.
  • Ask about and let people talk about how hard it was and how they learned to get through it. While this needs to be more than just a one-time conversation, be careful not to reinforce persistent complaining. Let people vent, then shift the focus to how they got through it and then reinforce those adaptive behaviors and strategies.
  • Ask if they learned anything new about doing their work. Just as those of us who worked at home learned that many meetings can be successful on Zoom, those who worked under COVID restrictions undoubtedly learned some things about their jobs.
  • Ask what can make their work better/easier now that things are returning to normal. Understand that there was a lot of “making do” during the pandemic. There are likely backlogs of things that need to be taken care of, and the sooner those are dealt with the quicker relationships will repair. Letting backlog items linger once everyone is back will further deepen resentment.
  • Increase your use of positive reinforcement for on-going work. When people interact less, there is less positive reinforcement. The pandemic created a reinforcement desert for many. In some cases, people got out of the habit of talking to others face-to-face. Even as they return to work, some are slow to get back out there and interact, thus prolonging the lack of positive reinforcement. Now more than ever it is essential for leaders and other support personnel (e.g., senior leaders, HR, safety professionals) to get out and interact with those essential workers. Positive reinforcement is the way to ensure they feel valued, not just for what they did, but for what they continue to do.

These strategies will go a long way toward repairing the rifts that developed over the past couple of years, rebuilding relationships, strengthening retention, and restoring the culture.

Posted by Judy Agnew, Ph.D.

As senior vice president of safety solutions, Judy spends her time helping clients create sustainable safety cultures. She also helps clients with strategy execution beyond safety, and general management and leadership improvement across cultural and generational differences.