Ask HR: I’m Afraid to Go to Work. How Do I Tell My Boss?

By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP May 8, 2020
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.

​SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today. The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor's answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.

Question: Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, my office has shut down and we are all working remotely for the foreseeable future. Normally, I'm pretty focused. However, I'm finding that it's easier to get distracted while working from home. Any tips on how to stay organized, motivated and on task?—Anonymous 

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Remote work isn't for everyone. But whether they like it or not, 70 percent of employed Americans now find themselves working remotely. For those who haven't before or have family to care for, switching to and staying in "work mode" while at home can be difficult. 

There's no shortage of practical tips you might try to cultivate productivity. But, before we get to those, let me start with this one: Be your own best friend

If you notice you're less focused, don't beat yourself up and fall into toxic self-talk. Instead, recognize your life has likely changed a lot in a little time due to big forces beyond your control. Change takes a toll on the psyche, especially if a stay-at-home order means staying alone, so be patient and take care of yourself. 

I say this because mental health is truly foundational, and we know the stresses of this pandemic can chip away at it. If your mind isn't right, not even the best "productivity hack" can help, so I encourage you to tend to yourself—and seek help if needed. 

With that said, here are 5 tips for working from home:

  1. Replicate your regular work schedule to the greatest extent possible. Wake up at the same time, work the same hours, stick to scheduled meetings, and take the same breaks. 
  2. If you haven't already, find a quiet place that's as distraction-free as possible. Don't be afraid to get creative—play white noise in the background or use noise-cancelling headphones. 
  3. If you have school-age children, create a routine or schedule for them, and remind them when it's OK to interrupt. 
  4. If you miss socializing, take a break to call your co-workers, friends or family. 
  5. Err on the side of over-communication and check in with your boss or team. If it's known to all who is supposed to do what and by when, teams can be more accountable, connected and engaged.  

These are a few small things that can make a big difference. But, if you had to pick just one of these practical tips, focus on the first one: Replicate, replicate, replicate.

Stay well!  


Question: How can you talk to your boss about your fears and tell him that you don't want to be at work because of the virus and hopefully maintain your position?—Anonymous 

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: You wouldn't believe how many readers have submitted precisely this question. 

Let me start with the answer you don't want to hear: Your employer has a right to demand its work be done in the office. A generalized fear of COVID-19 leading you to want to continue working remotely is not enough to protect your job. Employers have a duty, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, to maintain a workplace free of serious recognized hazards. While respiratory viruses like Influenza and COVID-19 are serious, no employer can protect every employee from contracting viruses in the workplace. 

Now putting the "legal" answer aside, you may consider approaching your People Manager about your concerns and request an accommodation to work remotely, at least temporarily, until the public health crisis subsides.

Start by meeting and speaking with your boss. Share that you're worried about working in today's climate—and be specific about any health risk you or your household members might be challenged by. 

Do you have COVID-19 or a medical condition putting you at higher risk? An at-risk family member or elderly parent at home? Children home from school or day care due to the pandemic? If so, be sure to share these facts with your employer. By detailing the problem, you'll make it easier—and more likely—for your employer to solve it. If your employer is flexible, working from home could be a quick fix.  

I have to be honest with you. With nearly 30 million Americans collecting unemployment benefits right now, you'll need to engage your employer very deftly.  If your employer perceives you as demanding work-from-home flexibility, you could risk losing your job. If, on the other hand, you make a reasonable request, it will likely work out.

Remember: It's a time of uncertainty but we're in it together.  


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