Fostering Dignity and Connection Even as the Pandemic Wears On

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, our endurance is tested anew each day.

Amidst this, an ongoing reckoning on racism and police violence against the backdrop of an election year adds a challenging mix of anxiety and anger on one hand, and possibility and hope for real change on the other.

Many of my colleagues at work and the activists we work alongside have helped their children start the school year virtually, as sports and social activities remain on hold. Colleges and universities have opened for classes in recent weeks, and shifted quickly into quarantine mode.

While Labor Day is traditionally a time to celebrate the end of summer and reflect on the achievements of American workers as well as a moment of transition—back to school, back to work, back to autumn—we face the fall with a sense of limbo and lethargy knowing our families are in danger. For too many, our jobs and housing are at risk, and our communities and country are on a perilous course.

This year, let’s stop to consider how these uncharted demands and pressures impact work—in terms of schedules, distractions, pressure, and more. And in doing so, come to appreciate that workplace dignity—a culture where we are valued, heard, and seen—is more important than ever before.

The 2020 study commissioned by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and Willis Towers Watson concluded “[a] culture of workplace dignity promotes an environment in which employees can experience a sense of self-respect, pride and self-worth, and it influences an organization’s ability to foster wellbeing, engage talent and drive business results.”

As this pandemic wears on, it is crucial that employers support efforts to balance the split priorities that come with surviving and evolving in this uncertain moment.

That means employees must be empowered by employers to put themselves and their families first through flexible schedules, paid sick leave, and mental health benefits—a radical shift from the traditional workplace mindset where one is expected to be “on the clock” for eight hours or more at a time, pushing personal and family concerns to the side. And knowing that honoring dignity is a real and actionable priority, not just a handy values statement in a handbook.

We are encouraged and inspired by the many forward-looking and response-to-the-moment practices many employers have rapidly implemented to drive change.

At Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, we too are working to strengthen and increase our efforts to have our workplace practices reflect the ideals of human rights and social justice that are at the heart of our work as an organization.

With the understanding that our colleagues are internalizing these crises in different ways, we are taking measures to be mindful: creating open space for cross-team shares, providing a monthly allowance to buy groceries, adding reimbursements for high speed internet upgrades and cell phone usage, and urging staff to use vacation benefits and half-day summer Fridays. Furthermore, the recent development of an action plan for investors to fight economic and racial injustice and our own emerging Workplace Dignity program has forced a long, hard look at our own internal practices, and with it a thorough examination of how we can better be talking the talk and walking the walk that we are calling for other organizations to adopt.

We’ve learned that creating a physical and psychological sense of safety, and allowing our colleagues and friends free to be vulnerable and reveal their true selves is crucial. We flourish only when we know we are accepted as our whole selves, not just our professional capacities. We must also make an affirmative commitment to honoring the dignity of those in workplaces other than our own. Their on-the-scene daily work puts food on our tables, mail in our mailboxes, news on our screens, and keeps our communities healthy and safe.

As Donna Hicks, author of Leading with Dignity posits, workplace dignity is to “give others the freedom to express their authentic selves without being negatively judged … validate others for their talents hard work thoughtfulness and help … give people your full attention by listening, hearing and validating … make others feel that they belong … put people at ease physically, and protect them from shame or humiliation so they can speak without fear of retribution … treat people fairly … empower people to act independently so they feel in control of their lives so they can experience hope and possibility … believe what others think matters … give people the benefit of the doubt … and take responsibility for your actions.”

As we enter the last quarter of this very hard year, let us take the time to appreciate the work of our peers and renew our commitment to treat one another with compassion, hope, and love.