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With the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) now emerging in more and more countries worldwide, many organisations, including Amazon, Apple and Google, are restricting employee travel. When communicating such decisions to staff, employers must carefully consider the language they use. Extra care choosing the right words in policies, emails, board papers, staff notices and other internal and external communications will help prevent stigmatisation. It could also potentially help contain the spread of the virus in your workplace.

COVID-19 and stigmatisation in the workplace

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported that the outbreak of COVID-19 has provoked social stigma and discriminatory behaviours against people of certain ethnic background. This is despite the fact that the source of the global outbreak is uncertain. 

In terms of transmission of a virus like COVID-19, stigma is the negative association between a person or group of people who share certain characteristics and a specific disease. In an outbreak, this may mean people are labelled, stereotyped, discriminated against, or treated separately. They may also experience loss of status at work or in their community because of a perceived link with a disease. 

Recent examples of this stigmatisation in relation to COVID-19 have been reported by staff at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne where at least one doctor was told by a family that they did not want the doctor to treat their child due to the doctor’s race. 

The impact of stigmatisation in the workplace

Stigma can undermine team cohesion and prompt possible professional and social isolation of team members. Rather than reducing the likelihood of spread, stigmatisation contributes to a situation where the virus is more likely to spread. For example, team members may try to hide their illness to avoid discrimination, such as not reporting immediately to their supervisor if they feel ill at work. This can result in more severe health problems as well as difficulties controlling a disease outbreak in your workplace.

Getting the words right

Companies, businesses and government organisations need to choose their words carefully when communicating to their staff about COVID-19. The words you choose for your workplace communications can significantly help reduce stigmatisation and lead to better productivity.

1.       Use the correct name

Despite various media outlets calling the virus ‘A new Chinese coronavirus’ (CNN) or the ‘Wuhan Virus’ (Business Insider), coronaviruses do not belong to a particular country. To prevent stigmatisation, it’s vital to avoid attaching a location or ethnicity to the virus. 

The name of the novel coronavirus is COVID-19, which was deliberately chosen to avoid stigmatisation. The ‘co’ stands for corona, ‘vi’ for virus and ‘d’ for disease, and 19 is because the disease emerged in 2019. COVID-19 is only one of a large family of coronaviruses, so to refer to it simply as ‘the coronavirus’, without identifying which coronavirus, is imprecise.  

 2.       Use neutral language and positive messages

Language has the power to perpetuate existing stereotypes or assumptions and can strengthen false associations between the disease and other factors. Negative or extreme language leads to widespread fear. Avoid words like ‘deadly’, ‘stricken’, ‘unprecedented’, and ‘Armageddon’. Use neutral words like ‘a person who has tested positive for COVID-19’. 

3.       Use inclusive, humanising language in the workplace

Applying labels or using criminalising or dehumanising terminology such as ‘culprit’, ‘super spreader’ or ‘contaminated person’ creates the impression that those with the disease have somehow done something wrong. Even if offence was not intended, such language makes these team members appear less human than the rest of us. In turn, this feeds stigma and undermines empathy.

These principles apply to other infectious diseases we deal with all the time in the workplace, such as the common cold or influenza. In the same way we would not refer to a team member as a ‘flu carrier’, avoid labelling or criminalising people with COVID-19. 

DO writeDON’T write
People who have the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).Carriers of the Chinese coronavirus.
Two company employees have tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19).The company has two suspected coronavirus cases.
One team member has been confirmed with COVID-19.One team member has fallen victim to the potentially deadly coronavirus disease.
Returning employees from a recent management conference may have acquired COVID-19.Returning employees from the recent management conference in Northern Italy have fallen victim to the virus.

Viruses don’t discriminate, only people do. Fear mongering and stereotyping will not stop the spread of the virus in the community or the workplace. With irresponsible media reports using stigmatising language, it’s easy to fall into the trap of passively mirroring their words and phrases. Journalists ought to know better, but sadly media outlets are often more interested in creating clickbait than reporting facts neutrally and responsibly.

In any communications regarding COVID-19, choose your words carefully in line with WHO guidelines. This care will go a long way to reducing or preventing stigma in your workplace and shows that you value your employees as individuals, regardless of their background or health status.

For further guidance about non-discriminatory language, or to request a copy of the WHO guidelines for writing about COVID-19, email patricia.hoyle@concisewriting.com.au or phone 02 9238 6638 today.