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Six HR strategies for containing COVID-19’s ongoing impact

Update HR strategies and retool HR policies in ways that can protect workers’ health and safety as we navigate our way through the pandemic and beyond.

After more than a year of facing restrictions, coronavirus fatigue has all of us hoping to put the pandemic in the past as soon as possible. And we are now seeing a tangible path toward normalcy as pharmaceutical companies ramp up production of multiple coronavirus vaccines, offering the promise that by this summer all adults in the United States can be vaccinated.

Yet we stand at the cusp of a fourth wave as governments loosen their restrictions and new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus continue to emerge. The risk was brought home by recent data from Johns Hopkins University indicating that 43% of new COVID-19 cases came from just five states in the US, which collectively represent just 22% of the country’s population.

Consider also that teens may start getting vaccinated this summer if early positive test results hold out. However, testing on children under the age of 12 only began in March 2021, suggesting that broad vaccine access to this group will only begin in late 2021 or early 2022. As a result, true herd immunity is unlikely before next year.

Also, while wealthier countries are likely to reach herd immunity by 2022, the World Health Organization notes that many countries will not even reach a goal of getting 20% of their population vaccinated in 2021. Until they reach herd immunity, those regions are likely to be the source of new COVID-19 mutations that require booster vaccines for adequate protection.

Finally, the Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI) shows that employee benefits for absent workers due to COVID-19 could cost employers $23 billion for every 5 million people infected with the virus. IBI states that workers are also affected directly, losing an average of $2,000 in earnings even if they use all their sick days to recover from COVID-19.

All of these indicators point to the fact that COVID-19 will continue to drive HR strategies for the next couple years, particularly as organizations look to protect both employees and their families. To contain the spread of COVID-19 as we make gains in greater protection, HR professionals need to update their strategies, as well as retool their HR policies in ways that can protect workers’ health and safety as we navigate our way through the pandemic and beyond.

1. Double Down on Prevention
More regional governments are opening their economies—not only allowing more employees to go back to the workplace but permitting people to go to bars and restaurants, two of the highest risk environments for contracting COVID-19. Even if enterprises employ safe practices at their own locations, chances are good that younger unvaccinated employees will become infected and potentially put coworkers at risk.

That is why organizations need to double down on prevention, which is often the unsung hero since success is measured what doesn’t happen. Typical measures are focused on the physical worksite with employees wearing personal productive equipment (PPE) and working at reconfigured, socially distanced stations. Some industrial businesses are taking a cue from biotechnology firms and setting up color-coded work zones to minimize interaction between different teams.

However, prevention needs to start before an employee ever enters the workplace. Companies should continue maintaining concierges or greeters at their offices and facilities, who can check each worker’s temperature and ask a brief set of questions before allowing that person to enter the building. Part of this pragmatic; part of this is psychological, since few employees want to be turned away at the door.

2. Make Risk Assessment Mobile
Even more effective is asking employees to self-report their COVID-19 risk remotely via their mobile phones. If they get an “OK” response, they can go to the worksite and use their mobile phones to show greeters they have approval to enter. If they get a warning indicator of potential COVID-19 risk, they have to wait for a manager or supervisor to advise them on the appropriate course of action for protecting their colleagues’ health, perhaps by working from home or onsite but in isolation and with additional PPE. This approach significantly cuts the chances of contagious employees coming into contact with others.

Today, this mobile self-reporting is focused on whether an employee has potentially been exposed to COVID-19. But, these same self-assessments could be used, for example, to determine if a worker is too tired to operate heavy machinery and should be assigned to another task for the day. It is one way, coronavirus prevention strategies can be applied help to more broadly improve work environments. Importantly, employees who self-report need to feel that they’re not at risk for getting fired and that the company’s priority is ensuring safe work conditions

3. Start Vaccine Policy Planning Now
Once all adults have access to coronavirus vaccines, companies can require vaccinations for most, if not all, employees as a condition of working onsite. Although implementation of such a policy may not be feasible Q3 2021 or later, organizations should begin putting plans into place now. Moreover, it is a good time to consider whether other vaccine requirements should be implemented as part of corporate policy, such as Tetanus shots for employees working with machinery or Flu shots for professionals that work with the elderly.

In implementing a vaccine policy, HR professionals will need to consider national laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act; local or regional requirements; and any policy or logistical requirements within the organization. There should be “triggers” for moving to certain phases of the strategy based on some combination of internal and external factors, most notably vaccine availability. Additionally, there should be a discussion of if and how the company can facilitate vaccinations and perhaps their families.

Having a strategy for communicating the policy and educating employees will also be critical. A growing percentage of people are eagerly awaiting access to the vaccines. However, there are still holdouts, who are concerned about the speed of the coronavirus vaccine development and approval or mistrust vaccines all together. Even among some groups of healthcare workers and first responders, up to 40% have declined the coronavirus vaccinations offered to them.

4. Rethink PTO Policies
For years, many companies have pivoted toward providing personal time off (PTO) that lets employees use a set number of days for either vacation or illness. And for as many years, we have seen the irritating effects of employees coming to work sick and infecting their coworkers. The resulting lack of productivity was considered a nuisance outweighed by the value of attracting and retaining employees with flexible PTO policies.

Unfortunately, the resulting corporate culture, which tolerated and sometimes encouraged employees to work while sick, escalated from inconvenient to deadly in the wake of COVID-19. There are all too many stories of people who went to their jobs, despite having symptoms, and triggered a chain reaction of infections.

Now is the time to rethink and retool policies. This might mean going “old school” and separating vacation from sick days. Alternatively, enterprises may provide more flexibility in using or carrying over PTO, so that staying home sick doesn’t ruin a planned vacation or force workers to take unpaid time off. HR and management teams will need to evaluate what policies will best support the business and employees.

5. Update Education
Training is more important now than ever as organizations face coronavirus fatigue among employees and customers tired of taking safety precautions. Unfortunately, we’ve already seen how that fatigue led to holiday surges in COVID-19 infections worldwide has resurfaced again, forcing some other countries to lock down once again.

For this reason, now is not the time to wind down regular weekly or monthly training on COVID-19 prevention. The key is providing new information to ensure that employees don’t “tune out.” For example, in retail, training may cover de-escalation strategies in situations where customers no longer mandated by the government to wear masks decide to defy the company’s mask policy.

As more employees get vaccinated, it will also be important to provide training on why these workers still need to adhere to the same safety practices as others. For example, a teacher recently expressed hope of getting the vaccine in order to teach class without wearing a mask—not realizing a mask would still be required to protect unvaccinated students and their families. This type of misconception is one HR managers across a range of organizations are likely to face among employees.

Finally, communications efforts around any policy changes around PTO, required vaccines, or other measures will be needed to address questions and/or encourage adoption.

6. Layer Strategies to Maximize Protection
Finally, no single strategy is likely to be sufficient. So, organizations need to adopt a Swiss cheese approach. The idea behind this concept is to layer different strategies to reduce risk to a tolerable level. For example, implementing four layers—such as social distancing, wearing PPE, monitoring employees’ self-assessments, and providing workforce training—potentially reduces the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak by a factor of 10,000x.

By combining prevention strategies, and being prepared to modify them as conditions change, HR professionals will be well equipped to successfully protect employees and their families.

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