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  • 31 August 2023
  • 6 months

Restoring the Workplace after a Strike: Who’s Responsible?

Emily Fournier

Marketing and Communications Manager

A little-known fact about the strenuous nature of strikes: Returning to work is the hardest part. Picketing employees return to work harboring fears of retaliation and anxieties about the piles of work that likely await them; non-picketing or non-union employees might feel shame for having crossed the picket line—fearing resentment from their colleagues—or they might resent the picketers themselves for what they see as “getting away with causing disruption and disorder;” and leadership might struggle with doubt and uncertainty about where their organization will go from here, and how order can be truly restored.

With each of these groups facing mounting anxiety about the return-to-work, it might prompt some to ask themselves: “Just whose responsibility is it, then, to ensure that this transition goes smoothly?”

The answer is, in fact: it’s everybody’s responsibility. Because, at the end of the day, ‘restoring order’ and ‘improving the return-to-work process’ all have to do with workplace culture; and workplace culture starts and ends with leaders and employees working together. Put simply, the path toward remedying—and, quite possibly, avoiding—a strike is inevitably one of mutual respect, equal participation and input, fairness and transparency, and open and clear communication.

Why Strikes Happen in the First Place

New research suggests that the prevalence of strikes has risen dramatically over the past year, and it doesn’t take a data scientist to figure out why. Inflation is soaring; costs of living are up…and people want wages that reflect this. But when you strip all that away—the focus on money and wages—what these strikes all boil down to is a last resort to advocate for recognition, respect, and corporate responsibility.

When workers aren’t paid enough—or more specifically—aren’t paid what they deserve, they end up feeling disrespected, disregarded, and uncared for. These sentiments are only echoed by the combination of poor working conditions, hostile management or leadership, a toxic workplace culture, and a lack of clear, upward communication. Each of these concerns will likely be raised during negotiations, but oftentimes not all of these concerns will be addressed, or better yet, alleviated—at least not right then and there. In fact, oftentimes striking employees will return to work long before an agreement is ever reached, creating an especially tense work environment in which all parties still hold resentments for one another, and harbor doubts and distrust in the path forward ahead, as well as in their leaders to get them there—which can then, of course, lead to further labor disputes and potential strikes down the road.

That being said, while a lot of emphasis is placed on preparing for a strike—for both employees and employers—experts caution that the post-strike transition deserves equal, if not more, diligence and attention.

The Aftermath of Strikes: A Case Study

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, major strike activity rose by upwards of 50 percent in 2022. So far in 2023, the nation has witnessed at least two record-breaking strikes: the Ascension nurses’ strike in Texas and Kansas—the largest nurses’ strikes in both states’ history—and the United Mine Workers of America strike in Alabama—the longest ongoing strike in the state’s history. While both sets of strikers have been cleared to return to work, the disputes are far from over; in fact, both unions have accused their respective employers of “punitive” and “unlawful” behaviors in response to workers’ demands. This includes the hiring and rather publicized praise of replacement nurses by Ascension management, ostensibly in an effort to union-bust.

The hiring of replacement staff in retaliation against striking workers is nothing new; it’s an aggressive tactic that’s been used by organizations since the 1980s. One of the most prominent examples of its use can be found in the case of the 1987-88 strike against the International Paper Company at its Androscoggin Mill in Jay Maine. In a study of the strike, organized by the United Paperworkers International Union, researcher Julius Getman observed that it is “when the strike ends that the deep costs of hiring permanent replacements emerge. This includes no less than the erosion of trust, the loss of or presence of conflicting loyalties, palpable sentiments of anger, and above all, a deluge of hatred—all of which undermine the productivity, efficiency, and profitability of an organization.

At the Androscoggin Mill, such aggressive anti-strike tactics from the International Paper Company meant that former strikers who returned to work “did so uneasily, feeling both guilt and continuing anger” with their employers and with the replacement workers, as well as humiliation due to having to work alongside the new staff. To maintain loyalty to their union and continuing strikers, many returning workers would refuse to help replacements, while sympathetic supervisors would also drag their feet when it came to training them. As one replacement hire—also known as a ‘scab’—shared with Getman, after asking a former striker to help him resolve a problem he was told, “I could tell you how to solve that [but] I’m not gonna. Every time I do that, I’m cutting a guy’s throat on the outside.”

“Some people that I’ve known for 20 years won’t speak to me,” remarked another notorious ‘superscab’ (a union member who crossed the picket line), Darrel House. “I can meet them face-to-face and they still don’t speak. That’s their choice. There’s like a spirit of hatred and bitterness. And things are just not improving.”

Two years would go by, and nothing would improve. Everyone—from high-level mill managers, low-level managers, to general staff—were aware of both an utter lack of discipline and the absence of any sort of work ethic within the organization. As a result of the bitterness, disdain, detachment, and dysfunction that the strike and the ‘less-than-handled’ return to the workplace inspired, workers remarked how the quality of the paper produced by the mill after the strike was notably poorer, production declined, management received little respect, and no discipline or order could be imposed or restored.

Easing the Tension: Everyone Has a Role to Play

To avoid making the same series of mistakes illustrated by the Androscoggin Mill case study, employees, managers, and their leaders will all have to come together and recognize that it is up to each and every one of them to ease the tension and rebuild workplace relationships following the return to work.

But what does this entail, specifically?

In truth, while everyone does have a role to play, their responsibilities will vary depending on their rank. For employees, taking care of their own needs, addressing their own concerns, stress, or anxieties head-on, reaching out to and checking in with their peers—even those “across the isle”—and communicating any thoughts, concerns, comments, and suggestions to the appropriate supervisor or manager in a clear, direct, and timely manner—are all requisite to establish mutual understanding, foster a good-natured work environment, and to ensure that they are being seen and heard and that their needs are being met. Such objectives are also necessary to build resilience against stress—including the heavy workloads that many might face upon returning to the office, changes to their schedule or routine, new or changed tasks, and new systems, structures, or teams.

The range of negative sentiments and emotions that lead to strikes are oftentimes still present upon workers’ return and must be addressed accordingly. Chiefly, this includes being cautious and delicate whenever the topic of the strike is brought up and trying to focus workplace conversations instead on topics or issues pertaining to the future—such as discussions regarding job roles, work design, and team structure—rather than getting stuck on old conflicts or disagreements. The strike will and must be talked about with everyone in the organization’s active participation, but such a sensitive topic requires a lot more forethought, organization, and planning than can be achieved in a spontaneous conversation between two colleagues. It’s best to leave it to leaders to manage these conversations in the near-term and focus instead on improving professional relationships with peers in the meantime.

But employees simply won’t be emboldened to make amends with their peers—or feel secure enough to take care of their own needs—without proper encouragement and direction from those above them. One of the chief responsibilities that managers must fulfill—especially within the first day, week, to month following a post-strike return to the office—is simply creating a welcoming environment for returning employees. This includes deciding which managers will be responsible for greeting employees on their first day back, including managers in every event of the day, hosting a welcome-back meeting to boost morale and initiate peer conversations, and going over explicit expectations, tasks, assignments, schedules, available supports, and EAP options with employees (Source: Canadian HR Reporter). Crucially, creating such an environment also entails that managers set aside time to meet with their employees one-on-one, scheduling touchbases, being visible on the floor or within online spaces for remote work, and putting in the effort to gauge how employees are doing, better understand their experience, and demonstrate a willingness to help improve the organization’s culture and employee experience.

None of this is possible, however, without consistent, strategic support from leadership. In the practical sense, strong leadership is needed for managers to carry out their post-strike duties: they need guidance on how to greet returning employees; they need to be made aware of the various support resources to direct returning employees to; they need to know exactly what it is they are supposed to say about the strike, and more importantly, what not to say about it; and they need to maintain consistency in their messaging to employees—and that starts with consistent leadership. When messaging between managers and leaders is aligned, the easier it is for employees to regain trust in their employer and think positively about the future.

As experts maintain, the post-strike return to the workplace is the last time that employers should be looking to completely transform their workplace. Yes, they should absolutely be looking to improve it, and transform it in a forward-thinking, positive way that reflects the demands and desires of the employees over a longer period of time. But there needs to be a readjustment period. Employees need to feel comfortable in their return to work, accomplished only when they have a solid grasp of their duties, of what’s expected of them, and what the objectives of the organization are. Now is not the time to “be impressive” as many experts say is a pressure felt by the majority of those in leadership positions; for while “bold declarations” or “flashy promises” draw people in, as one-by-one they fail to be fulfilled, they inevitably diminish trust over time, which will only lead to further disputes, strikes, or turnover.

At the end of the day, leaders are the face of the organization. If employees can’t put a face to who they’re working for, they’re simply not going to be inspired to do their best, to commit to the organization, to feel a sense of pride or togetherness, and all the feelings that caused them to go on strike in the first place are just going to fester until they decide to walk away. That said, leaders must commit themselves to visibility, authenticity, compassion, and empathy. Visible leadership is the most surefire way to rebuild trust among employees, as it demonstrates a genuine, human connection between those at the top and those on the ground floor. By engaging in two-way, open, and honest conversations, leaders can also demonstrate a willingness to genuinely understand their employees’ needs, concerns, desires, hopes, and aspirations, and furthermore demonstrate commitment to moving forward by asking direct questions like, “Where did we go wrong? And what can we do to make things better?”

It all starts at the top: the more organized and visibly committed to improving the workplace that leadership is, the more likely it is that high-, mid-, and low-level managers and supervisors will fall in line, and the more satisfied, relieved, and hopeful employees will be following a strike.

Enlisting the Help of a Third Party: Why It‘s So Important

While employees bear the brunt of the impact that strikes can have on individuals’ mental, emotional, social, and financial health, they’re not the only ones susceptible to the stress of it all. Exhaustion is just one major concern for managers during a workers’ strike, as many of them take on extra work left behind by striking employees, are potentially reassigned to different roles or locations, and “must contend with fractured relationships and conflict among work teams, as well as lowered productivity levels, diminished focus, and floundering commitment” (Source: Canadian HR Reporter).

Likewise, even leaders might feel the effects of anxiety, uncertainty, stress, and perhaps even remorse, as they fret or ruminate over how they got to this point and how they can make things right. The bottom line is that everyone is hurting, and everyone deserves a space to explore how and why they’re hurting—what it is they’re experiencing—and how they can regain their footing and sense of wellbeing: a task that is essential to cultivating a healthy, connected, good-natured, and thriving workplace.

And this can only be achieved with the help of an outside or third party; someone who can come in and help leaders, can help managers, can help employees; but also, can help leaders so that they can help managers, so that managers can help employees, and so that employees can help each other. Especially in the case of a major labor dispute or strike, a third party can be useful in helping to assess the situation and identify both the problems and solutions free of any biases, grudges, ulterior motives, and all other conflicting or distracting emotions. As many experts will argue, it’s hard to see it when you’re in it, meaning you can’t always see the bigger picture or really get a firm grasp of what’s going on when you’re so caught up in the experience. So to have that third, omniscient, and detached pair of eyes come in and look things over and be able to clearly and succinctly define what’s happening within an organization, to be able to say that, “employees aren’t readjusting to their roles because they’re stressed about the financial implications of the strike,” or “they haven’t been in any sort of contact with management or leadership and it’s making them feel unwelcomed or apprehensive about their return to the office,” or that “managers are stressed because they haven’t been given clear instructions on what to say to their employees and feel unequipped to support them” and then to be able to offer professional, actionable advice on how these anxieties or deficits can be resolved, is extremely beneficial and can significantly expedite the recovery or healing process following a strike.

So, what are the different types of services that a third party can offer employers to ease and expedite the return-to-work process?

One of the most efficient ways in which third-party consultants can help is through organizational assessments: collecting both qualitative and quantitative data on virtually every aspect of the workplace that the employer wants to learn more about to assess current strengths, weaknesses, opportunities for improvement, and potential threats. Through these assessments, consultants can come in and collect secure, confidential, and anonymous (if preferred) testimony from employees about the current culture of the workplace, the perceived credibility of leadership, and the alignment of organizational goals with personal aspirations; they can analyze how incentives or rewards are being used and how effective they are at motivating and satisfying employees, or if they’re not sufficient; and they can measure how prepared a workplace is to deal with changes or crises. Whether because of the potential anonymity or the mere ability to speak to someone outside of the organization, these assessments are a great way to amplify the employee voice and garner honest and actionable feedback that will help leaders to make the appropriate changes following a strike and better include their employees in the change-making and decision-making processes moving forward, which is essential to rebuilding trust and a good internal culture following a strike. In both the pre- or post-strike period, enlisting in a third party to conduct a workplace stress check or wellness check is also an effective way to gauge employee mental health and wellness trends, assess the impact of work-related stress on employees’ moods, attitudes, behavior, health, and work-life balance, and identify potential risk factors or problems before they lead to bigger conflicts.

Especially during the stretch of time after a strike—and even during it—measuring how leaders and managers are doing mentally, emotionally, and practically is essential; if the one’s steering the ship are off-balance, then the ship is sure to sink. Through the support of third-party consultants, managers and leaders can have access to professional coaching—including for crisis management and trauma response—which can help them to identify and implement accommodations or strategic changes in a timely, efficient manner, determine best intervention and support strategies, build resilience in their teams and individual employees, while at the same time learning how to identify and satisfy their own needs. Manager assistance programs can also be utilized to unpack managers or leaders’ own distress and pinpoint resources that are at their disposal to alleviate stress and to lead in a more effective way that is conducive to their own and their employees’ needs.

Most importantly, however, third parties are an excellent way to build upon and strengthen the resources that employees have access to in the aftermath of a strike. This may include in-person, virtual, or over-the-phone support from trained clinicians or counselors; access to health and wellness coaches, including financial wellness coaches—which will be especially important for employees who forewent multiple paychecks; and return-to-work programs or workshops that help employees work through the anxiety they may be experiencing upon returning to the workplace. Third parties can also organize group sessions intended to facilitate trust-building and open communication amongst peers, allowing them to express their feelings to each other, begin to make amends for differences or past grievances—which is especially important in the event of a sensitive issue like a strike or dispute—and develop a way forward together.

In a time when everything seems unstable, strikes are ubiquitous—but that doesn’t mean they’re inevitable. By putting in the visible, genuine effort to listen to employees, embrace their ideas or demands, and work collectively to improve the state of the workplace, employers can not only enhance their recovery in the aftermath of a strike, but quite possibly avoid one altogether.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. Contact us to learn more. 

This content is intended for general information only. It does not provide specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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