America is still in the first wave of coronavirus with over 5 million cases and more than 160,000 deaths. At the time of this writing, the CDC data estimates that 5-10% of America’s population has been directly affected by COVID-19, which doesn’t even take into account the people who had the virus and were asymptomatic.
“To be purely objective, as a country, we’re failing with how we’re handling COVID,” said Dr. Kavita Patel, public health policy expert, Brookings Institution Fellow, and Evident Advisor. “We’re failing because of sheer numbers, but also because we’re seeing longer testing turnaround times, and unfortunately it’s businesses, not government, that have been shouldered with the burden of testing, tracing, and providing advice and guidance to employees.”
Science, data, and polling all reveal that Americans will not feel confident about spending time in any environment unless they are certain they can be healthy in that environment. This same mentality extends to businesses – employees won’t return to work if they are at all concerned about their health and safety in the workplace.
“Any issues with returning to work are going to come down to employees feeling confident and feeling like they’re going to be healthy in their workplace,” said Dr. Patel. “Statistics that illustrate how people are worried about the impact of COVID are getting worse, and some in the public health community suspect there’s also a lot of underreporting around mental health because it’s somewhat stigmatized.”
45% of American adults are experiencing a negative impact on mental health to worry or stress related to COVID-19.
3/5 American women with children under 18 are experiencing a negative impact on mental health due to worry or stress related to COVID-19.
Before the pandemic, few HR and operational leaders were prepared to add public health and epidemiology expertise to their job descriptions, but without a clear, unified nation-wide strategy to help Americans weather the storm, Dr. Patel suggests that business leaders start leaning into these new and unfamiliar tasks so their employees can feel confident that the company is doing everything they can to keep everyone healthy and safe.
Here are 3 simple things that HR and operations professionals can start doing right now to protect their businesses and prepare themselves for the next phase of COVID:
- Take the time to analyze your regional and local data. Businesses that are waiting to bring their employees back to work will greatly benefit from tracking the data from relevant geographies to help them determine their next course of action. Almost every U.S. county, city, and state has some incredibly useful websites with geography maps that highlight virus levels and positivity rates. Businesses that are in the planning stages of returning to work should consider dedicating a meaningful amount of time tracking data – ideally every 1-2 days – from your regional and local health department(s). Those with more than one workplace are advised to track multiple data sets for each city or county in which they operate.
- An important thing to keep in mind when analyzing this data is that there is a lag time between people getting infections and diagnoses, and it might be weeks before deaths begin to be reported in the data. For example, the deaths we’re seeing reported today are a product of infections from 4 to 6 weeks ago.
- Decide what types of resources your company is going to offer employees. HR and operations professionals need to be extra prepared to support their employees in a variety of ways, especially those who work for businesses that are preparing to bring employees back to work sooner than later. Creating nimble and flexible policies to prioritize employees’ mental health and provide helpful resources is pertinent, so that when an employee with a chronic condition, or an employee that has to help their school-aged child with distance learning asks for special accommodations, the business will be prepared to address their needs and answer their questions, even if the answer is “I don’t know.”
- Monitor the situation so you can make critical changes, quickly. Keeping tabs on employees – whether it’s monitoring their health or gauging their sentiments with regard to returning to work – is key for businesses to make important decisions and to shift course quickly. While this might seem like it goes against how American workers typically feel about keeping their personal lives private, it’s the only way businesses can keep everyone safe and reduce their liability, especially if they are actively bringing employees back to work. Using a spreadsheet to capture and track employee data so they can make real-time decisions is a rudimentary way to tackle this issue, but it’s not sustainable or advisable for long-term success. Companies also need to be mindful of where they’re storing sensitive employee data to avoid privacy infringements and security breaches.
Here are two real-world examples of companies in different industries that are in various stages of returning to work and how they’re handling it to preserve their business and protect their employees:
- Consulting Services Company
- Highly productive and successful in the beginning of the quarantine, but their employee productivity has started to become impaired by remote work.
- Employees were asking for the company’s return-to-office plans, even if for a few hours daily or weekly, just to get exposure to colleagues and customers outside of the home.
- The multinational business – operating in more than 10 countries – is keeping an eye on local data before acting on any return-to-work decisions.
- Security Services Provider
- Company provides physical, in-person security services, and customers need their employees on-site and engaged now.
- Business would be in jeopardy if employees don’t return to work
- They need a proactive strategy to facilitate immediate return-to-work while still making sure everyone feels safe.
“If you’re overwhelmed by this, you’re in good company,” said Dr. Patel. “I’ve talked to small business owners who are concerned about how their employees will be affected if their kids can’t go back to school, and I’ve talked to Fortune 50 CEOs who’ve been told by their internal teams that they have a handle on COVID, and then a hot spot breaks out in their city, and they have to reconvene. Conditions on the ground will change, and when they do, your business will need to change with it.”