Learning to live with Covid: why company policy needs to change in response to new wellbeing challengesby
The risk from Covid remains a threat, but even once this has passed HR professionals need to keep a strategic eye on the future and develop a long-term infection secure policy to look after the health and wellbeing of employees and the business as a whole.
We have recently heard a lot about the UK’s collective need to “live with Covid”. Recently the Prime Minister made it clear that the onus of responsibility in this area will soon move from government back to individuals and employers.
It makes sense to harness all the collective experiences of pandemic control to better shape our future workplace infection-secure response.
This significant change occurs despite rising case numbers (predicted to reach 50,000 new daily infections this month), and ongoing uncertainties around virus mutations and vaccine protections against long Covid infections. It is therefore evident that the nation’s Covid risks remain very real indeed.
So what does all this mean for employers, and how can HR professionals positively influence company policy to protect the health and wealth of employer and employee alike?
It’s important to firstly recognise that Covid may not be the ‘once in a century’ health threat that it is popularly believed to be.
In the 100 years since the Spanish flu pandemic there have been numerous global outbreaks of infectious disease. Indeed, it is estimated that such incidents have increased fourfold in this period, and since the start of the 21st century alone the world has faced many new threats including MERS, SARS, Ebola, and Covid.
Thankfully, only one of the above diseases gained a significant foothold in the UK. Covid has provided ample proof, however, of the damage that any such infection can do to both the health and economy of the nation.
The reality is that a new infectious disease could arise again at any time, so it makes far more sense for HR professionals to build a set of workplace policies that can be deployed in the face of any health threat – be that a resurgence of Covid or a new disease of the future.
This daunting task might appear more manageable if we build-on our collective experiences of the current pandemic. Indeed, one of the reasons that many South-East Asian countries have weathered Covid far better than their European counterparts is their recent experience of combating epidemics such as SARS and MERS.
So it makes sense to harness all the collective experiences of pandemic control to better shape our future workplace infection-secure response.
Where to begin?
The current Covid-secure guidelines do of course represent a useful starting point for employer planning here.
The mantra of ‘hands-face-space’ is difficult to argue with, and is likely to be equally compelling in limiting the spread of so many other infectious diseases of the future also.
Employers should perhaps go much further than Covid-secure minimums alone.
A big challenge of the current pandemic has been fiscal support to ensure workers can afford to self-isolate when required to do so. Figures from UCL indicate that those on the lowest incomes are the grouping least able to financially comply with such requirements.
This suggests that financial support to help employees do the right thing (i.e. self-isolate to avoid spreading the illness to their colleagues and others) should be a top priority for all employers.
It follows that a robust sick-pay policy needs to be established to ensure that there is no reason for any individual to return to the workplace until it is safe to do so.
Testing and vaccinations
Practical support for testing and vaccinations should also be at the heart of any robust policy to combat future infectious diseases.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the employer will need to facilitate these interventions either onsite or elsewhere, but providing the flexibility and support to enable employees to attend such appointments will become far more important.
Employee benefits support
Employers can also harness a range of employee benefit tools to support their infection secure policies.
Remote access to a doctor for help, diagnosis, and treatment without physically visiting a crowded local surgery is bound to reduce the incidence of spreading and/or contracting infectious disease, and is likely to be welcomed by workers.
Likewise, phone and internet access to advice and guidance offered through an employer-sponsored employee assistance plan (EAP) is another useful support tool that has even greater potential as part of an infection-secure policy. Other physical and mental health apps should also be on offer too.
Employers might also aim to provide access to private medical insurance treatments for all workers, group income protection policies to provide long-term income support for those unable to work as a result of post-viral conditions, and of course group life cover too.
Many employers will have all these tools available already (either as a stand-alone policy, or as a value-add tool attached to another benefit), so it may just be a question of exploring what is on offer and ensuring that the benefits are explained and promoted to all employees.
A business requirement?
There are lots of simple steps that employers can take to build a robust policy that will be useful during the remainder of the Covid pandemic, and indeed in the face of any new infectious health risks of the future too.
There is one important additional point to make, however: managing the risk might be more than just the right thing to do – indeed having a robust policy in place might well become yet another ‘hygiene’ factor in retaining and winning business tenders in the future.
In March 2021 Howden asked more than 200 senior HR delegates if they believed that there would be more pressure on employers to provide an ‘infection-secure’ workplace in the future. The response was resounding, with 83% of delegates suggesting this would be the case in all employment sectors, and another 15% in at least some sectors.
Time to take action
It’s clear that the onus of responsibility for workplace safety and workforce wellbeing will soon be returning to employers across the United Kingdom.
So now is the time for HR professionals to help build an infection-secure policy to combat the latter stages of the pandemic and any future infectious health risks that may arise too.
Interested in this topic? Read How HR can mitigate the mental health impact of office re-integration.