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Ask HR: How Can We Help a Colleague Dealing with Anxiety?

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today.

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

I work on a team that regularly interacts with executive leadership at a government organization. One of my co-workers has consistently backed out of situations where she is scheduled to address our executives. Someone else generally has to fill in for her. We suspect these situations carry a lot of anxiety for her and she is intimidated by our senior executives. How can we address this issue and support her challenges? —Holly

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I applaud your desire to support your colleague. Anxiety due to the fear of public speaking is incredibly common, and that fear can be compounded when speaking to people with a higher level of authority, or where any failures might be perceived as career threatening.

If you feel comfortable doing so, have a conversation with her. Let her know you have noticed that she tends to be unavailable when she is supposed to address the executives. Let her know how it is impacting the team. Ask if there is a reason she avoids these situations. If she's open to talking about it and says fear is the reason, there are some ways you may be able to help her overcome it.

First, you could let her know she is not alone in her fear of public speaking. Many people have this same anxiety. Share stories where you or someone you know was in a similar situation and how it was handled. You could also help her to separate the facts of the situation from any possibly overblown thoughts or fears she may have.

During your next presentation, try assigning her a small portion to speak to. Sometimes starting in small increments (e.g., handling one slide or one question) is a good way to build confidence. You can also conduct a run-through where you provide feedback and share tips about what you've learned over your career for managing stress and feeling comfortable speaking in front of others. During the run-through, anticipate questions executive leaders may have and practice responses. Reassure her that you are rooting for her and are willing to assist as needed during her first presentation.

You should also encourage her to speak with her manager or HR about it. There may be coaching or training opportunities available to help develop public speaking skills and confidence. If the anxiety is more than just a fear of public speaking and it's impacting her work, her manager and HR together could determine if a reasonable accommodation is needed.

I work at a shipping warehouse. With so many people having asymptomatic cases of COVID-19, should my warehouse continue with temperature checks for our employees as they enter the facility? —Kennie

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Yes, by all means, continue with your safety protocols. Maintaining a safe work environment is good for workers, the business and the community. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend prevention strategies like employee screening with temperature checks, especially in areas of high COVID-19 transmission rates. 

Over the summer, many organizations relaxed employee screening as vaccines became available and cases dropped. However, as the pandemic lingers, many employers are reinstating safety measures such as mask wearing, social distancing and temperature checks. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration encourages employers to screen employees before each shift for COVID-19 symptoms. And they offer several methods of employee screening: 

  • Asking employees to self-monitor at home before reporting to work. 
  • Providing an online screening tool, if feasible. 
  • Stationing employees at each entrance to ask health screening questions.
  • Maintaining an "employee only" entrance to perform screening.

Screening can be effective in identifying COVID-19 in asymptomatic employees. You can do this for all employees or only unvaccinated employees. 

Consider local transmission rates, employee vaccination rates and physical work environment factors as you work with your HR department to develop a COVID-19 screening strategy to suit your business needs. Remember to check state and local jurisdiction regulations for any applicable COVID-19 screening requirements.

In addition, you can take steps to minimize transmission risks by offering incentives to workers who get vaccinated. Vaccinations, testing, good hygiene, social distancing and masking go a long way to reduce the spread of infection. 

We must all remain vigilant and implement existing and new processes proven to keep employees, customers and communities safe while meeting the organizations' needs. Be well.