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5 tips on dealing with Covid-19 stigma in the workplace

CAPE TOWN- The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way many sectors operate and while sickness in the workplace is not uncommon, the strict guidelines in place to reduce transmission of the virus and constant news updates, can make people hyper-aware and even suspicious of their co-workers’ health.

Employment relations expert and lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), Gawie Cillié, says the alarming rate of infections could potentially provoke social stigma against anyone perceived to have been in contact with the virus or who shows some of the symptoms even if they are not infected. 

“Stigma is associated with a lack of knowledge about how Covid-19 spreads, a need to blame others, fears about disease and death, increased tension amongst teams and gossip that spreads rumours and myths. This very stigma can result in people hiding their illness to avoid discrimination and prevent people from seeking health care immediately,” he said. 


News reports related to the pandemic can cause increased anxiety, said Cillié, and could result in hostile working environments. 

“If people are stifling coughs to avoid harassment from colleagues, or being avoided unnecessarily in the office environment, even with the 1.5 metre safety guidelines in place, hand-sanitising and masks, then management needs to intervene.”

Labour legislation such as the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHS) and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCOE) is there to protect employees.

If an individual employee contracts the virus and is unable to work, the employer can require the employee to submit a medical certificate and grant the employee paid sick leave in accordance with the BCOE Act.

“However, if the employee must be quarantined due to exposure to Covid-19, they will naturally not be permitted to work at the business premises as a preventative measure. In this scenario the employer should grant the employee ‘quarantine leave’. The employer is not allowed to force the employee to take sick leave, as the employee will not be able to obtain a medical certificate while under quarantine to submit to his employer.”

Employers can manage Covid-19 stigma in the workplace by focussing on the psychological safety climate and taking the following actions:

  1. Amplify the voices and stories of people who have experienced COVID-19 and have recovered, emphasising the high recovery rate
  2. Establish a “people first” language that respects and empowers people in all communication channels. Talk about people who have Covid-19 in human terms; don’t refer to people with the disease as “Covid-19 cases” or “victims”.
  3. Actively encourage engagement with employees by regularly checking-in, including those working remotely. Discuss with on-site employees whether they feel safe with the protocols that have been implemented in the workplace.
  4. Establish policies and procedures to manage interpersonal conflict.
  5. Provide information on employees’ roles, responsibilities, and rights, as well as the organisation’s role in dealing with any workplace bullying related to COVID-19.

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