Tips for maintaining respect and safety in your workplace when tensions are running high and opinions differ

By Dr. Bill Howatt

A recent Leger poll indicates that 80% of Canadians support vaccine passports in their province. However, the divide between Canadians who support them and the 20% who feel otherwise is growing wider and presenting significant hazards to employees' psychological safety in many workplaces.

Vaccine passports went into effect in Ontario on September 22nd. There have already been numerous reports of employees being assaulted and verbally abused for simply complying with safety protocols and doing their jobs.

But it isn't just the interactions between staff and customers on the vaccine debate that are taking a toll. Lines are being drawn inside businesses as well. Employees who may have felt united in their fight against the pandemic now realize that they hold opposing views about vaccination.

Many employees who have been vaccinated and are following the safety protocols are being yelled at and abused by protesting peers, customers and members of the public. And, conversely, many who cannot be vaccinated are feeling the anger and resentment of peers and customers who feel they don't care about their safety. No matter which side they are on, there is a risk that employees may feel overpowered and vulnerable, which can lead to mental harm.

No employee or customer has the right to judge or harm another for their views. Leaders have to treat this behaviour seriously and must find a way to protect employees. If it is allowed to continue, it can result in significant psychological injury. If you haven’t completed training on violence and harassment awareness and prevention, or offered it to your employees, you may want to consider doing so now. It will help you understand your legal obligations, and will arm your team with information about what to do if they are involved in or witness a violent situation.

Leaders must navigate uncertainty and polarization

The reality is that this division will always exist. There are some defined medical exceptions for taking a COVID vaccine, so, in many workplaces, you will always have vaccinated employees and those who aren't.

The onus is on you to help your employees navigate the uncertainty and polarization around this issue and to mitigate tension between individuals and groups with different points of view.

Above all else, your primary role is to protect employees' psychological safety. Aggressive bullying and harassment of employees cannot be tolerated. Every employee has the right to go to work feeling psychologically safe.

Tips for supporting all employees

Below are some additional tips to help you ensure that all employees feel supported and protected.

Remind employees of the facts:

  • Not everyone can be vaccinated
  • It is unknown how long vaccines last and how they will protect against variants
  • Vaccinated individuals can spread the virus
  • Vaccination doesn't prevent exposure

Pay attention to the psychosocial factors you can control — These secondary factors require attention to ensure they don't exacerbate the risks associated with the vaccine issue. For example, work demands perceived by an employee as excessive can become negative stress resulting in burnout, fatigue, or turnover. As we've shared in previous posts, it is important to keep the lines of communication open and address challenges in an open and collaborative manner.

Review and champion policies to ensure they protect employees — Norm Keith, Partner, Employment and Labour Law, KPMG Law LLP, and a leading advisor in Canadian safety law, suggests that employers remember it is your duty to keep workers safe while accommodating exemptions. He urges that leaders listen to employee concerns and enlist the support of the workplace joint health and safety committee in developing and implementing policies. Revisit your Respect in the Workplace policy, and if you don't have one, consider working with your employees to put one in place.

Avoid judgment and pay attention to the tone you are setting — Provide direction on policies and expectations without judging employees. Model tolerance and encourage employees to respect others with different points of view and not attack or judge them.

This issue is highly charged, and it is just the latest in a series of new and uncharted paths you've had to navigate as a leader. Many leaders were already experiencing burnout, and this latest phase of recovery could exacerbate the problem. While it is essential to protect your employees and customers, you must also be sure to protect yourself and practice self-care to avoid this risk.

Try to approach these interpersonal conflicts calmly and reinforce the values and behaviours that have always existed in your workplace. Maintaining an open and collaborative approach and using the tools and practices we've outlined in previous posts will help you move through this in a supportive and positive way that can help you keep your employees and your business safe.

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