Five lessons for employers to apply to the pandemic’s second wave

As coronavirus cases rise across the country and some return-to-work plans become return-to-home plans, many employers are wondering how to help their employees adapt once again as the second wave of the pandemic slams into Canada.

Will there be another lockdown this year? Will children be expected to learn remotely again while employees work? How can we, as employers, ensure that we’re better prepared for this ongoing crisis that still has no clear end date?

The first wave may have acted as a catalyst for change within our organizations and caused us to take a hard look at how and why we do the things we do. It may have resulted in a radical shift in our core business, an accelerated digital transformation of business processes or delivery and most definitely changed the way employees interact with clients and each other. 

Read: Five workplace changes that should stay post-coronavirus

Where an organization hasn’t already started this exercise, now’s the time for a retrospective view of their response to the first wave. While it was definitely a time of rapid change and pivoting in response to that change, what went well?  Knowing what we know now, what would the employer approach or implement differently? Did they survey their employees to gather feedback during or just after the first wave? Do they intend to do that now?

Here are five of the lessons learned in the first wave that can instruct an organization’s approach during the current second wave and likely well into next year.

1. Regular communication is key

Organizations across the country are in different stages of reopening and operating. Some have their full complement back in the plant on rotating shifts with social distancing and other safety measures in place. Some had started to return some employees to their office spaces. Others have settled in to having an entirely remote workforce. As there continues to be so much uncertainty associated with this pandemic as it evolves, it’s critically important for employers to communicate regularly with employees.

If return-to-work plans have stalled because of surging cases in some of regions, share that with employees. It’s challenging to know what’s going to happen next, even when watching the recommendations of health authorities in a given area, so tell that to workers as well. Employers should communicate regularly about their plans for return to home or return to work by region, even if there isn’t any change. And they must be as transparent as possible, working to allay the worries of employees, even if they don’t have all the answers yet.

Read: Without vaccine, business as unusual for employers likely to continue until early 2022

Additionally, it’s very likely employers rolled out a bunch of communication at the front end of the pandemic which, beyond health and safety procedures and supports available, included changes or restrictions to benefits coverage and avenues available to employees if they needed to be absent from work for a variety of scenarios. At this stage, review these communications to ensure they’re up to date. Remind everyone about what they need to do if they’re unwell or if someone in their home tests positive for the coronavirus. Reiterate the benefits available to support them through self-isolation, quarantine and recovery, both through the benefits plan, as well as provincial and federal government programs.

 2. Prioritize mental health

Many people are struggling with their mental wellness these days for a number of reasons. A recent online survey by Leger Marketing Inc. and the Association for Canadian Studies found one in four Canadians felt their stress level was higher in October than it was at the beginning of the pandemic. As well, a Sun Life Financial survey conducted earlier this fall indicated 68 per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 34 said their mental health has been negatively impacted by the pandemic. 

Most organizations offer some mental-health support coverage as part of their employee benefits program or wellness strategy. Employee assistance programs can offer employees and their family members a variety of ways to access counselling or self-help resources. A number of insurers can now cover internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy as an eligible benefit under the psychology benefit.

Read: Feds launching new online mental-health resources

Also, many provincial health-care programs now include some form of mental-health support in addition to the Wellness Together Canada portal introduced by the federal government. Employers may wish to highlight or layer on additional resources directly related to stress management and resilience with tools and supports to help with the development of healthy coping strategies that are accessible when employees need them.

Many employees are likely caregivers for others, either young or school-aged children or elderly family members who might be experiencing lockdowns where they live. Providing additional supports and resources specifically aimed at caregivers will be important and appreciated as this crisis drags on. It will also be important to provide information about what happens if employees need to be absent from work to care for someone else but aren’t unwell themselves. 

As employees continue to socially distance or work remotely, meaningful human connection remains a challenge. During the first wave, many employers found creative ways to keep teams connected and engaged using technology. While what’s been dubbed Zoom fatigue is a real thing, being able to see each other even if it’s only over video is important for social wellness.

3. Stay on top of available support programs 

With things changing all the time in response to the pandemic, it can be a challenge for employers to keep up to date with all the moving parts that affect or can assist employees. Appointing one information gatekeeper in an organization can make this more effective. 

Read: Employers taking many approaches to leave, benefits during coronavirus pandemic

Also, employers can leverage their advisor partner or insurer for assistance in making sure they have updated information about benefits extensions through leaves of absence, restrictions or limitations in coverage like emergency out-of-country travel insurance or travel assistance programs, as well as changes to government financial supports. Review any existing information posted on intranet sites or at physical locations to ensure the information provided is still relevant and accurate.

4. Review the benefits philosophy

With changes to where employees are working and how and when work is delivered, the benefits philosophy an organization has in place may require updating to reflect the new reality. At its core, a well thought out benefits philosophy creates the guideposts by which decisions are made about management of the benefits program. An organization’s benefits philosophy should both align with and support its human resources strategy and ultimately its business strategy and goals.

Read: Majority of Canadian employers not changing benefits plan due to coronavirus: survey

With business or hiring strategies shifting during the pandemic, it’s also a good time to test the relevance of the benefits philosophy and ensure its tenets still hold. That way, the framework for decision-making is there when it’s needed and will help an organization hold true even when it needs to make difficult decisions about the benefits programs. For example, if a shift to remote work is also resulting in hiring from a broader geographic talent pool, guideposts will help ensure equity regardless of employee location while still addressing regional differences that could impact employee attraction and retention. 

5. Remain flexible

One thing we have all had to learn to accept through this pandemic is the importance of remaining flexible. As the situation evolves, as hot spots and case clusters pop up, as people deal with the coronavirus themselves or in their families, we all need to be able to pivot as leaders of people, as employees, as members of our families and communities.

During the first wave, many employers put programs in place to help employees manage their health, as well as their work and home lives. These will remain important in the second wave and beyond. For example, additional personal days, virtual health care access and agile business practices, which let employees move their work day around core hours, have become key tools in helping organizations get work done while helping their employees keep all of their plates spinning.

Read: How OPG is leveraging virtual care to improve health access

Flexible business continuity plans that are both fact-based and adaptable by location or region, allowing for differences in how work is done in the context of different lockdown level changes or regional spikes in infection rates, will be a key element of success for organizations.

While keeping employees healthy and safe should be the top priority, it’s also important to continue to consider matters that impact employee engagement and retention. As we continue to move through this pandemic, the ability to be both retrospective and forward-looking can help employers and their employees weather the storm together.