Thursday, Apr 2, 2020 | 4:00 PM ET
Ten Ways for Employers to Assist Their Employees during the COVID-19 Outbreak
On February 29, the Economist published an article succinctly titled “COVID-19 is now in 50 countries, and things will get worse.” They were very right. Exactly a month later, on March 29, the World Health Organization reported that 203 countries, areas or territories have been affected by the outbreak. Countries have been working furiously to “flatten the curve” – lower the reproductive rate of the virus -- to ease the burden on healthcare systems, buy time to find new treatments, and reduce the total number of infections throughout the course of the pandemic. With “social distancing” the key weapon in this fight, approximately 2.6 billion people, or one-third of the world’s population, are now under complete or partial lockdown. Large gatherings, day-to-day activities and business as usual have halted.
While there is no escaping the disruption this crisis is causing, there is a lot that employers can do to support their employees and employees’ families that will have a meaningful impact. Our Health on Demand research found that employees typically have a good deal of trust in their employers, and the steps you take now to help maintain their well-being -- physical, emotional, financial, and social – will echo far in the future. Here are 10 ways employers can help empower their workers to push through the uncertainty and persevere:
- Err on the side of over-communicating. Consistent communication can convey strong leadership, avoid confusion and reduce anxiety. A well-organized and supported COVID-19 communications team can take in the evolving information, distill the key implications, and distribute it effectively to the workforce. Remind employees and their managers of the support resources available through the company and in the public.
- Provide testing & coverage information. Employers who sponsor medical, life, disability, accident and special-risk insurance (such as business travel and expatriate coverage) should be familiar with the terms and conditions in their policies testing coverages, eligibility requirements and unique provisions for quarantine. Employers should also pay special attention to public health, law, and policy updates in their geography for further implications to testing and coverage information. Consistent messaging by managers about access to health benefits and leave is critical during a crisis.
- Support mental health & wellbeing. The COVID-19 pandemic is already resulting in increased stress, depression and anxiety. Employers have a role in communicating information and providing mental health support for their employees. Educating managers, making services available for those affected, and communicating the availability of Employee Assistance Programs and other support services (e.g., tele-therapy) that are in place will help to mitigate the mental health impact of the pandemic.
- Encourage telemedicine. If you are an employer that provides telehealth benefits, it is imperative to communicate to employees the support that is available to them and the services available. Unnecessary exposure to infection at hospitals and care centers can be avoided through virtual care. Telemedicine or other forms of virtual care are good options for many issues.
- Assist with pharmacy changes. Employers should support early refills (including for behavioral health-related prescriptions) and home delivery through a local pharmacy in order to minimize trips by employees to the pharmacy. Many employer are considering or have implemented a one-time override to allow for 90-day supplies of specialty medications. Furthermore, some employers have also extended the duration of existing authorization approvals for items such as prior authorization, step programs and quantity limit overrides to limit administrative burden, while continuing to do so for newly initiated therapies.
- Leverage reliable resources. In your communications, be sure to direct employees to reliable sources of information on COVID-19, such as the WHO, Center for Disease Control (CDC), and their local public health entities. Reinforce to employees and their families that they should reference those and communications from you as their sources of truth as opposed to the 24/7 news cycle or social media.
- Manage communications with local health systems & public officials. A robust preparedness plan comprises governance structures, clear protocols and lines of communication. It also includes assessing supply chain viability and collaborating with public health entities. The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) has put together a Directory of Local Health Departments by state. Be sure to monitor local, state and national legislative updates to understand what else you can do to support your employees and society to flatten the curve.
- Put policies & processes in place. All employers should review their existing pandemic crisis management and response plans and establish new protocols for the current environment as needed. Employers should seek legal counsel and follow the direction of local public health department officials if there are concerns about known, suspected or high-risk cases. If an employee is found to have been exposed to COVID-19, there should be protocols for transport, communication and decontamination.
- Comply with occupational health needs. To ensure employee safety, check to see if company policies are in alignment with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As businesses resume operations and individuals return to work during the COVID-19 recovery phase, all employers must manage fitness for work and other occupational health practices to keep the workforce safe.
- Think innovatively. Many organizations are innovating to support their workforce. We have seen employers adding hospitalization cash allowances, enhanced mental health benefits, special caregiving benefits, even allowances for creating a comfortable home-working space. Employers are also finding new ways to manage employees in the remote working culture, with innovative training and tools. Looking outside the box for solutions can help employees to thrive inside their homes.
While it is important to ensure that employees have access to continually updated information, it is just as important to show empathy to ensure your key messages get through. In addition, as your organization works through this stressful process, remember to take notes! Lessons learned will help pinpoint and address vulnerable areas in your business and human capital strategies in preparation for the next crisis.