The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out new guidance Thursday, saying that vaccinated people no longer need to wear a face mask indoors in most settings. Still, local governments and businesses are permitted to require them. Mask mandates have been tricky, even dangerous, for public-facing businesses to navigate.

One person dealing with this is Arthur Gathers, a meat and seafood clerk at a Kroger market near Richmond, Virginia. Retail workers around the country have been harassed and physically attacked while enforcing mask mandates. Gathers said he’s been looking forward to the day he’ll no longer have to deal with the issue. “It’s going to be a very nice thing if it gets to that point.”

But he doesn’t think that point is now. Though he is fully vaccinated, he worries that some people who aren’t will use the new guidance as an excuse to go unmasked, and they’ll spread the virus. At age 65, he’s concerned about variants that vaccines might be less effective against. “So it’s still scary,” he said.

Kroger has announced it will continue to require masks for the time being, as have Target, Starbucks, and Home Depot. Other stores are reviewing their policies.

“The updated guidance has created an impossible situation for retailers,” said Lisa LaBruno, senior executive vice president of retail operations & innovation with the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “There is no ambiguity in expectations, both from retail team members and from customers.”

LaBruno explained that retailers have to weigh the safety and comfort concerns of workers and customers and consider local COVID-19 infection numbers and laws.

The ambiguity is already affecting Karen Clark, who owns a vintage shop outside Santa Barbara, California, where a statewide mask mandate is still in place. “As soon as the news broke,” she said, “we had people coming in the store without masks, and we said, ‘You know, you need to wear masks in our shop,’ and they’re like, ‘Well, we don’t have to anymore.'”

The medical evidence does suggest that vaccinations will drive down cases enough to make mandates unnecessary. However, a lot of businesses aren’t ready to rip off that Band-Aid, or mask, just yet.

According to research* ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week (10-16 May), of the four in five employees (79%) who currently have health and wellbeing concerns, stress and anxiety is the biggest issue for almost two thirds (62%): 

Stress and anxiety: 

  • as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic (21%) 
  • related to work (12%) 
  • related to finances as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic (10%) 
  • related to home life (e.g. caring responsibilities, managing difficult relationships) (10%) 
  • related to finances more generally (e.g. debt) (8%) 

The industry body for the group risk protection sector fears that some of these health and wellbeing worries may have been exacerbated due to the boundaries between work life and home life having become significantly blurred during the past year. Adding to this lack of delineation are the issues of presenteeism (working whilst sick) and leavism (using non-paid hours and annual leave time to catch up on work) which are reportedly both on the rise and potentially adding to employees’ stress and anxiety levels. 

Stress and anxiety issues were not the only main worry for employees: a general lack of fitness (e.g. due to non-active lifestyle/sedentary working) was the primary concern for 14%, and a further 10% of employees also reported that sleeping problems were their main concern.  

Katharine Moxham, spokesperson for GRiD said:“Stress and anxiety can seriously hinder our ability to function in everyday situations let alone in a demanding and often pressurised work environment.   

When employees work from home, it’s easy for them to switch on a laptop to ‘stay on top of their inbox’ or ‘get ahead for the next day’ but, because there are only so many hours in the day, the time for family, home admin/chores, relaxation activities or sleep are reduced as a result. This can cause stress and anxiety in other areas of their lives. Similarly, being ill previously meant resting at home but employees now have the ability to log on from their sick bed, despite whether that is good for their health or not. 

Employers need to be aware that these feeling of stress and anxiety among staff are widespread which may impact on their employees’ ability to complete work effectively and could potentially lead to more serious mental health issues in the future.  

Employers need to support employees across a number of areas including medical, legal, financial, wellness, relationship, child and eldercare issues. There are a number of employee benefits, such as employer-sponsored income protection, life assurance and critical illness that not only support staff  during the most challenging times in their lives but that also offer intervention programmes designed to assist employees in resolving day-to-day personal problems. 

Katharine Moxham concluded: “Health and wellbeing concerns often start as minor issues that, if left unchecked, become bigger burdensUnfortunately, the pandemic has meant that many employees lives are more complex and they have much more on their plate from both a personal and professional point of view. By using the support embedded in to employee benefits, employees will be able to help resolve their concerns efficiently because they’re being guided by experts in their field.”