Skip to Main Content

Returning to Work: A Compassionate Approach To Staff Well-Being

The COVID-19 pandemic has instilled feelings of stress, anxiety and fear in many dental professionals. Learn how to address staff who may be returning to work with significant anxiety and unease over their own health and safety, financial worries or child care in the current environment.

Practice owners wear many hats. Not only must they be experts in clinical care but also in countless aspects of regulatory compliance, marketing, operations and employment practices. And one of their most essential hats to wear is team leader. From the hygienist to the receptionist, employees often look to practice owners for leadership and to help them navigate emotional, social and financial challenges in the workplace.

Today, staff need strong direction and guidance more than ever before. The COVID-19 pandemic has instilled feelings of stress, anxiety and fear in many dental professionals. Staff may be returning to work with significant anxiety over their own health and safety, not to mention financial worries, child care concerns and general unease about the current environment.

The Dentists Insurance Company has reported an increase in calls to its Risk Management Advice Line from dentists seeking guidance on how to address employee stress. Some dental practice staff are expressing concerns and hesitation about returning to work for fear of contracting COVID-19. Some are concerned because they live with a medically compromised or elderly family member. Still others are unable to report to work because of a lack of child care. 

As team leaders, practice owners are being called upon to provide their staff with support in their time of need. While distraction, stress and fear are normal and expected during this time, a compassionate approach can give your staff the sense of well-being they need to return to the workplace with more confidence.

Use a Facts-Based Approach

With so much misinformation circulating, separating fact from fiction can be difficult. As the team leader, it is up to you to educate your employees and reassure them that you are committed to providing a safe working environment. If you haven’t already, consider holding a training focusing exclusively on COVID-19 best practices with ample time to answer questions and address specific concerns. Additional training in infection control, treatment-area disinfection and donning/doffing personal protective equipment (PPE) may also help put staff at ease.

Spend time studying guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), OSHA and other state and federal agencies to familiarize yourself with the latest guidelines and provide updates regularly. These guidelines have been fluid in response to the ever-changing pandemic environment. Keeping employees informed and involved on the current protocols can help alleviate feelings of helplessness. It also demonstrates that you take the safety of your staff seriously and are adding informed steps to minimize risk.

The American Dental Association offers a return-to-work interim guidance toolkit and online course with recommendations for steps to take before, during and after appointments to protect dentists, patients and staff.

Provide Flexibility

If job responsibilities allow, consider providing employees with a bit of flexibility in their schedule. Some duties can be performed remotely, allowing staff to stay home if needed. Others may be struggling to balance work life and home life, so allowing them to come in later or leave earlier may help ease their frustration. Some practices have implemented alternative workweeks and staggered shifts to reduce the number of employees in the office at one time.

High-Risk Employees

In some situations, employees have been hesitant to return to work because either they or someone in their household is at high risk of contracting the virus. While this caution is certainly understandable, employers must do all they can to reassure them that all recommended safety precautions are in place.

Some employees are considered high risk because of conditions protected under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing and Employment Act. For example, diabetes is a protected group under both acts, meaning employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for diabetic workers, such as moving workspaces 6 feet apart and installing Plexiglas barriers.

Although accommodations are expected and in some cases required, making assumptive health and safety decisions on behalf of your employees is ill advised. For example, limiting assigned work hours without employees’ approval because of their age or medical status can be grounds for a discrimination claim. Instead, provide the employee with reassurance, but ultimately allow them to make the decision.

Lack of Child Care

Many parents are struggling to return to work due to a lack of child care. Some child care centers remain closed, and those that have reopened have reduced capacity. Due to lost wages during shelter-in-place orders or practice interruption, some parents may simply not have the means to pay for child care. Practice owners are advised to have open conversations with employees to discuss the possibility of flexible hours or telework, if possible. Employers should also be prepared to provide resources to parents, such as links to state and local agencies that can provide assistance. You can access state-by-state COVID-19-related child care resources via the federal Office of Child Care

Employee Protections

Peter Finn, an attorney with Bradley, Curley, Barrabee & Kowalski PC in Larkspur, Calif., notes that there are typically no legal protections for employees of dental offices or health care facilities who refuse to return to work due to COVID-19-related reasons. Although Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to provide additional leave to those impacted by the pandemic, the act does not typically apply to employees of health care facilities — including dental practices. The act provides the ability for businesses with fewer than 50 employees, under certain circumstances, to self-exclude from the extended leave for child care purposes when an extended leave would jeopardize the viability of the business. Employers have the ability to seek 100% reimbursement for wages paid under this act through IRS tax deductions. However, some protections exist with regard to OSHA, Finn said. If an employee raises concerns that the office is not following proper health and safety protocols by providing PPE or implementing social distancing guidelines, the employee may be protected.

“In addition, federal OSHA law permits an employee to refuse work if the employee believes in good faith that doing the work would place him or her in ‘imminent danger’ and the employer has failed to eliminate the danger,” Finn said.

Even when employees may not have specific protections under law, it is recommended that the practice owner attempt to work with the employee to find a solution that meets the needs of both parties. Keeping staff safe is of the utmost importance, and taking a collaborative, compassionate approach goes a long way in reassuring staff and keeping morale high. Should an employee still refuse to report to work, consult with an attorney prior to considering terminating their employment.

Care and Compassion

Although dental practices are cautiously resuming care, fears over health and safety and financial security remain. As leaders of the dental team, practice owners are encouraged to take a gentle, flexible and compassionate approach when addressing employee concerns during this time. A dental team is a close-knit group, one that’s often considered family, and a little empathy can go a long way in assuaging fears and getting back to business.

TDIC’s Risk Management Advice Line is a benefit to TDIC policyholders. To schedule a consultation with an experienced risk management analyst, visit or call 800.733.0633. For Risk Management guidance in Idaho, Oregon or Washington, call 800.452.0504.

Rate this article:
No rating