When the North American auto industry returns to work after almost two months of isolation, workers returning to plants and offices will be carrying more than lunch pails and newly mandated protective equipment. Most are likely to bring a very natural dose of fear with them.
Fear is perhaps the most powerful motivator of human behavior — a fact known well to those who design political attack ads for a living. Fear instinctively drives human beings to act, often irrationally and even against their own long-term self-interests, with a singular desire to continue living, to escape the existential threat or avoid a known danger.
In the case of COVID-19, the fear is legitimate and understandable. The death toll continues to rise to shocking levels, even as doctors and researchers race to develop treatments and ultimately a vaccine.
Businesses keen to reopen stores and factories must respect the fear their employees will feel, for themselves and for their families and communities. In addition to their personal risk, there's the awareness that a second wave of infections is a real possibility, that it could be worse than what's been seen already and that the economic pain of withstanding the first one may have been for naught.
And the wariness of that risk isn't exclusive to employees: Neighbors, vendors and especially customers are also going to feel it.
Addressing it is a twofold challenge. Job 1 is ensuring that the work environment is as safe as can be, adopting best practices for hygiene and human resources even as they evolve. The second part is making sure that employees and customers also feel reasonably safe.
Employers should start by acknowledging the dangers and vowing to take them seriously. Work practices must be revised and protective equipment procured. Demonstrations of compassion and of shared sacrifice can go a long way.
Once the medical system has the needed testing, tracing and treatment capacities, restarting the auto industry will be good for the economy. For those idled by this pandemic, returning to work should make them feel better — fiscally, physically and emotionally.
Calming the fear requires patience now, and it may require even more when everyone comes back to work.