It’s the only story around these days. COVID-19 — the coronavirus — has broken out all over the world, leading to strain on health-care resources, uncertainty in capital markets and strict social distancing and lockdown measures from governments.

The pandemic is naturally causing fear, anxiety and uncertainty, both among employees and among managers. But here’s the good news: every person — and every organization — has a part to play in ensuring that this virus’ stay is as short as possible. We can get this done if we get our priorities straight.

While every workplace is different, I believe that every organization can, by putting the health and financial wellness of its people first, help mitigate the virus’ impact on both itself and society at large.

Read: Employer responsibilities around benefits, pension provision during coronavirus

Below, I’ve highlighted the four key priorities for a people-centred coronavirus response. But it’s critical to remember: employers can have the best possible benefits in place, but if their employees don’t believe they care, it will all be for nothing, so employers must plan, communicate and conduct themselves with compassion, and put their people first.

1. Put workplace health first and plan for absences

In the context of a pandemic, some employees may become sick, and even more will be worried and wanting to self-isolate. Therefore, leaders should be planning for three absence scenarios:

  • Employees who are unable to work, due to imposed quarantine or self-isolation;
  • Employees who are unwilling to work, due to (entirely justified) fear of the virus or competing obligations, such as childcare during school closures or caring for a loved one who has contracted the virus; and
  • Employees who will be returning to work after an absence related to coronavirus.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for these absence scenarios. What works for us at Mercer might not work for other employers. However, there are common sense steps every employer can take, including removing procedural barriers to taking sick leave and enabling remote work where possible.

Read: Employers moving to remote work to help ‘flatten the coronavirus curve’

These steps also include ensuring that employees are able to secure absence coverage and compensation, so they don’t hesitate to take necessary sick leave for fear of the financial consequences. Recognizing that not everyone will be able to provide this benefit, the federal government has promised to enact changes to employment insurance to allow workers who wish to reduce working hours to do so and to expand access to EI medical leave, as well as enact entirely new benefits to cover individuals who don’t qualify for EI.

These are good measures. If an organization is unable to provide paid sick leave, I encourage it to direct employees to the government’s resources to help provide financial supports through this difficult time.

2. Invest in digital employee health benefits

Pandemics are historically associated with elevated levels of anxiety and depression, and people with pre-existing mental-health conditions may find them aggravated.

These aren’t just individual tragedies, they have consequences for organizations. If they become widespread in the workforce, they’ll impact an employer’s bottom line.

How do employers mitigate that? By ensuring employees know their employer has their best interests at heart and giving them access to the supports they need. Now, more than ever, it’s important to invest in our employees’ health and wellness benefits.

Read: How to support employees’ mental health during coronavirus

Virtual health-care benefits are critical at this time. In a recent survey, Mercer found 70 per cent of emergency room visits could be replaced with virtual consultations without any reduction in quality of care. This not only provides employees with health-care options that don’t require them to go out, it also reduces strain on the health-care system.

It’s understandable, in a time of considerable economic uncertainty, that employers might want to delay this decision. But their employees can’t wait. Employers need to act now.

3. Plan for financial uncertainty and put financial wellness first

The public health response to coronavirus has created significant economic uncertainty. That said, at Mercer, we believe our base case for 2020-2021 is still intact: when the pandemic ends, growth will return.

Investing, as always, is a long-term play. Plan sponsors know they have to look beyond short-term volatility. However, now may be the right time for an off-cycle valuation, as well as planning for the very worst case scenarios.

Employers should also be building a cadence for communicating with both employees and retirees drawing down their retirement savings plans. They’ll have seen the news coming out of the markets and they will be worried. Knowing that their employer is on top of the problems will set minds at ease.

4. Communicate with employees

Employers remain one of the most trusted sources of information. In order to maintain that trust in this uncertain time, communications with employees must be empathetic, consistent and focused on what matters.

Decide on the key items that are most important to employees — the policies and programs to support them through this time of uncertainty and difficulty, as well as the latest updates on the virus.

Decide on a cadence, so that employees can come to expect and rely on these updates, and be prepared to communicate immediately in times of emergency.

Read: 70% of employees satisfied with employer communications around coronavirus: survey

Finally, understand the key stakeholders in the workplace — line managers, who have a direct relationship to frontline employees. Ensure they’re well supported and armed with the right talking points and answers to employee questions.

The coronavirus is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. By keeping these priorities front and centre, employers can help improve their workplace health and mitigate the virus’ impact on their organization, as well as the world at large.

Jaqui Parchment is the chief executive officer of Mercer Canada, a global consulting leader in talent, health, retirement and investments. These are the views of the author and not necessarily those of Benefits Canada.
Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on benefitscanada.com

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