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Leaders Key to Re-Engaging Employees after Lockdowns

Managers’ strong commitment to safety practices is a critical element to regaining employees' focus upon their return to work, research shows

Rachel Muenz

Rachel Muenz, managing editor for G2 Intelligence, can be reached at

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As vaccination campaigns continue across the world, COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, and many employees start returning to the office, a recent study reveals the impact strong leadership has on re-engaging workers in the workplace.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, shares how important a leader’s commitment to safety practices, such as wearing personal protective equipment, is to ensuring the productivity of their employees who are returning to in-office work.

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While previous research on employees returning to work after large-scale traumatic events has mostly focused on how these individuals respond to stress, not many studies have covered what these workers can do to be most productive once they return to a regular work environment, the researchers note. Specifically, they explored other research on the importance of “job reattachment,” or being mentally prepared to return to work.

“In this study, we drew from this emergent line of research and extended it to the context of employees returning to work in the current pandemic,” the researchers state in their paper. “In so doing, we sought to fill the research gap regarding what employees can do to facilitate their successful return to work by identifying job reattachment as an important driver of job engagement.”

Leadership lessons from managers and workers in Wuhan  

The researchers recruited their study participants from Wuhan, China shortly after the city ended its 76-day lockdown in April 2020 and employees began returning to regular office work. Using survey data from 352 employee-supervisor groups, the team explored job reattachment, leader safety commitment, job engagement, work withdrawal, use of personal protective equipment, and task performance.

They found that the more committed to safety leaders were, the more engaged and productive their employees tended to be and the more likely those employees were to also follow proper safety practices such as wearing PPE. High job reattachment was also found to have a positive influence in these areas.

“In linking job engagement to lower levels of work withdrawal and higher levels of PPE use and task performance, this research both extends the positive effects of job engagement to the context of returning to work and underscores the importance of fostering employee engagement in trying times such as the current COVID-19 pandemic as these work behaviors—in aggregate—can protect employees’ health and safety and contribute to workplace effectiveness,” the researchers state.

The team concludes that their research could provide important guidance for leaders on how to best re-engage employees both during the current pandemic and after other large-scale traumatic events such as natural disasters, or smaller-scale events such as injuries. However, they point out that because their study focused only on people from Wuhan, the results may not apply to all regions or countries and more research will be needed to confirm their findings on a larger scale.

For lab managers in particular, this study is an important reminder of how crucial it is for leaders to always follow proper lab safety and COVID-19 safety measures and actively work to protect their employees’ well-being to ensure their staff do the same.

“Our findings underscore the critical role of leader safety commitment and offer a sobering reminder for organizations that regardless of their stated health and safety goals, what truly matters is perceived leader safety commitment in day-to-day managerial practices,” the researchers write.