“Follow the science” has been the fallback mantra for many politicians, corporate leaders and pundits on moving past the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Science is facts. Science is rational. Science has data on its side.
But what if the solution to getting people comfortable with being back in large, indoor environments, such as bringing people back to the office, needs a dose of something more – something science alone cannot provide?
Communicators (and most politicians) learned a long time ago that emotional appeal, particularly laddering up to a human value, sways opinion more effectively than a fact or piece of evidence. And one of the strongest and most desired human values is peace of mind – the mental state of tranquility or protection that you enjoy when you are free from worry.
In the latest COVID-related research conducted by Purple Strategies, we focused on returning to the office. The findings reinforce what we know from previous research and ongoing public debates. The insight that stood out, however, was employees’ overwhelming desire for and acceptance of nearly all the actions a company could take to be seen as providing a safe working environment.
And the reason? Employers taking these steps provide employees with peace of mind. There may be no evidence that some or many of these measures prevent the spread of the virus, but these actions improve employees’ mental health, which this virus has attacked as much as physical health.
While some of these actions are clearly grounded in science, many of the protections employees want to see in place before returning to work have been derisively described as “hygiene theater.” Hygiene theater is the practice of taking cleanliness measures that give the illusion of improved safety while actually doing little to reduce any risk. Our findings, however, strongly indicate that for employees, risk goes beyond germ transfer models and chemical calculations.
In our study, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, American workers told us that seeing their employers implement a multitude of protective measures would make them more comfortable and give them peace of mind, but too many measures make them uncomfortable or anxious. By a 4-to-1 margin, employees agreed that the current or proposed actions already in use at their workplace made them feel more comfortable returning to in-person work. They did not see the current or proposed actions as being too many and making them uncomfortable. These numbers were consistent across age, race and gender, with some slight narrowing, but not reversing, when looking at political affiliation and education.
When we looked at 13 of the most common actions employers have announced they have or will take, these actions were seen as “reasonable” by 64%-85% of people. On these same 13 proposed actions, only a small proportion (10%-25%) of the public rated any of the measures as “not necessary to feel safe working in person.” The actions that rose to the top as both reasonable and essential include: “Encouraging employees to stay home if they don’t feel well,” “Posting the health guidelines that the company is following,” and “Providing free masks and hand sanitizer.” None of these actions burden employers. In fact, most are common sense, reinforcing that these health and safety actions are about peace of mind, not scientific evidence.
So, while the term “hygiene theater” is often said with a cynical tone, its emphasis on visible displays of action, including a mix of those backed by science and those backed by common sense, may be a positive and appropriate approach for how employers think and act while creating the ideal return to work environ. Bringing together the actors, scripts, orchestra and all the props that make for successful theater is exactly what employees are looking for to safely return to work both physically and mentally.
By Robert Fronk | Managing Director