The COVID-19 pandemic has caused illness and deaths in large numbers around the world. Every day we see those numbers rise, while other social problems and economic issues continue to be exacerbated. Not only that, many people are working from home, remotely, away from their teams, in isolation. In this environment, people are scared and anxious about catching the disease, and this is the perfect breeding ground for rumors and misinformation to take hold.
What is coronavirus stigma at work?
Coronavirus stigma is a relatively new concept – but stigma itself is not. Stigma is what happens when there is a group in the community that aren’t regarded with the same level of respect as everyone else who are then subject to unpleasant behaviors and treated unfairly and inequitably. This includes myths, rumors, stereotypes and other prejudices taking hold and unfairly affecting these people.
In the workplace can have negative consequences for all employees. For the employee who is experiencing stigma, it can be isolating, scary and cause them stress and anxiety. These employees may also hide their illness and even delay or avoid seeking medical treatment because they fear a positive COVID-19 test will result in discrimination.
For the general employee population it can mean that fear and rumor-mongering are running rife and creating a toxic work environment which affects morale and employee engagement. For the company this means that productivity can be reduced, good employees may decide they want to work for a more inclusive company – and you could even be left exposed to legal issues and financial losses if this behavior goes unchecked.
Effective employee communications can help to address the stigma surrounding COVID-19 and create a more cohesive, inclusive team environment.
Different ways stigma might be experienced as a result of COVID-19
There are a number of ways stigma can affect your organization at this time, all of which may affect employees in different ways, but have negative outcomes nevertheless.
1. Health-related stigma
Employees who have contracted and recovered from COVID-19, have had family members who have had COVID-19 who may or may not have recovered are most likely to experience stigma associated with the disease as others may fear they will contract coronavirus if they associate with them, even if they are no longer contagious.
Other employees who have recently traveled or those who have been in quarantine, but not tested positive for COVID-19 may nevertheless face stigma.
2. Racial stigma
Around the world there have been reports that people of Asian descent are experiencing increased racial harassment as a result of the pandemic. This is because of the origin of the virus in China and people failing to understand that not everyone who has an Asian heritage is at risk of the disease.
3. Occupation-related stigma
Many healthcare workers such as nurses and first responders, like paramedics, have experienced abuse and aggression from members of the public during the pandemic because of a fear that they may have contacted the disease while they’re at work.
4. Stigma caused by various conspiracy theories
All over the world there are many different conspiracy theories about the virus, but the bottom line is that some of your employees may believe these conspiracy theories and treat other employees who have differing opinions in a stigmatizing manner as a result.
Ways to overcome COVID-19 stigma in the workplace
Communication and education is one of the most effective ways to fight stigma. Giving people easy to understand, timely and factual information can help them to be more tolerant and empathetic.
Lack of clear information can also help rumors, misinformation and conspiracy theories to spread, fueling stigma. Good communications will enable people to talk freely about the disease in an open and honest way.
Internal communicators and other managers in your organization can help to overcome COVID-19 stigma in the following ways:
- Ensure that privacy and confidentiality is maintained at all times when it comes to employees who have had COVID-19 or may be part of a contact tracing investigation.
- Distribute facts about COVID-19 to your employees from reliable and reputable sources such as the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- When you know about misinformation circulating in your organization, call it out and correct it.
- Communicate factual information about risks and preventative measures regularly to your employees.
- Be careful about the language you use in your communications. Avoid terms like “China virus” or “Wuhan virus.”
- Make sure any images you use in your communications do not enforce any negative stereotypes.
Communication activities to help fight COVID-19 stigma in the workplace
Whether or not you have problems with COVID-19 stigma in the workplace already, or you just want to avoid it, organizations can take proactive steps using different communication tools and tactics to help build a tolerant workplace culture.
1. Talk about COVID-19 openly
Whether its at team meetings or one-on-one conversations between employees and their managers, talking openly about COVID-19 and fears and misconceptions about the virus can help to eliminate the stigma.
2. Communicate reminders regularly
Send hints, tips and reminders about the reality of the virus to your employees so they can remain safe and vigilant and also understand how the virus is spread.
This can include information on proper hand washing, covering their mouths when they cough, social distancing, wearing gloves and masks and other personal protective equipment.
Good ways to send these types of messages include custom corporate screensavers and wallpapers on computer desktops so that employees regularly see the information. Digital signage in your corporate buildings can also help to reinforce this information with employees.
Download 6 free screensavers to keep your staff informed during the COVID-19 situation.
3. Send health and safety information to frontline staff
If you have employees who come face-to-face with the general public, send them push notifications on mobile phones and tablet devices to ensure they get the same sorts of health and safety information as office-bound (or home office-bound) employees.
If your industry is one that is affected by negative behaviors from the public because of COVID-19 stigma, for example healthcare, you can also send information to your employees to keep them safe from stigma. For example you can schedule messages to be sent to nurses at the end of a shift reminding them to change out of uniforms or scrubs before leaving work and going out in public.
4. Create a dedicated space where employees can access information
Create a space on your intranet site or any collaboration platform you may be using to share factual information about COVID-19 for your employees based on your local health authorities’ advice and include your company policies on working from home, sick leave, and anything else related to COVID-19. Whenever you update this information, make sure you send a link to the content via pop-up message or mobile app alerts – employees won’t necessarily always go looking for new information, so it helps to bring it to their attention when there is an update. Scrolling desktop tickers can also keep employees updated when there is new information.
5. Test your employees’ knowledge and then correct misinformation
A quiz sent to your employees can help to determine how well they understand COVID-19 and if they are engaging in conduct that is contributing to stigma as a result. Results from such a quiz can be used to create new communication and education material that addresses any specific areas of concern, for example if there is racism present.
The COVID-19 pandemic is something unlike anything we’ve experienced in living memory, so it is understandable that human nature will take over and fear and misunderstanding will take root. Creating a supportive environment that values facts over rumor will help your workplace to beat stigma.