While the COVID-19 vaccine offers a beacon of hope, a return to business as normal still seems far off. Here we share some inspiration for how employers can start planning for a safer, healthier future, even in the midst of so much uncertainty.
Disturbing health trends create a ‘syndemic’
The key, according to Nico Pronk, President at HealthPartners Institute and Chief Science Officer at HealthPartners, is taking a hard look at whether our “business normal” was as healthy as we’d like to think.
Many studies show that underlying chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, and mental health conditions, have been affecting workplace productivity and driving up health care claims long before COVID-19. These conditions are attributed to decades of disturbing trends in obesity, physical inactivity, poor nutrition, elevated stress levels, and sleep disturbances. And on top of that, the people who are struggling most with these issues are those most affected by and at risk for COVID-19. Obesity has been linked to an increased risk of mortality among patients with COVID-19, Pronk explains.
“We're not just in a pandemic,” says Pronk. "We're in a syndemic too." A syndemic, he explains, is characterized by two or more diseases that adversely affect one another. And, as COVID has shown, they tend to amplify inequities, hitting vulnerable groups hardest.
Taking on a syndemic sounds like a daunting challenge for most businesses. But, according to Pronk, there are many practical things that businesses can do right now to start building a better future.
COVID-related innovation: a launch pad for better workforce health
And, the pandemic has provided fertile ground for change. “COVID-19 forced organizations to move to more flexible, innovative working models. These in turn may have led to greater empathy, compassion and human connection,” he says.
“Now is the time for employers to use these experiences to create a long-term COVID-19 plan to keep workers safer and healthier, maintain production levels to meet demand, and keep their doors open for customers whatever health threats we face. It’s easier said than done, but strong scientific guidance is available.”
That focus on science has led to a new network of researchers dedicated to addressing COVID-19 and related health concerns. Called the Healthy Living for Pandemic Event Protection (HL-PIVOT), it's all about education, training, and the creation of policies and workplace programs that change our culture of health and well-being on global, national, state, and local levels.
The HL-PIVOT’s first call to action for employers is to begin to outline those activities that can prevent illness, protect and promote health, and optimize productivity.
As inspiration for others, here are ways two Midwestern employers, Andersen Corporation, North America’s largest window and door manufacturer and retailer, and MSP Communications, a creative agency and publisher of Mpls St. Paul and Twin Cities Business magazines, are following this call to safeguard the health of their workers now and in the future.
1. Use the best science to stop COVID-19 virus spread
Public health measures, such as social distancing, masking, screening, focus on hygiene and other workspace planning measures must continue even as employees start to get vaccinated.
Creating a culture of “this is the way things are done around here,” will help ensure your employees keep sticking to the guidelines, advises Pronk.
MSP Communications did just that – they created a culture centered on employee health and safety during the pandemic. Part of this new way of doing things involved working mostly from home, moving their headquarters to a smaller office for collaborative purposes that followed COVID workspace set-up guidance, and creating protocols for screening, hygiene and contact tracing.
“Our structured approach to COVID pandemic planning sent a single, strong, unified message of continuity to MSP’s employees, revealing that we truly care and that we are doing all that we can to keep people safe,” says Mary Authier, Vice President of Operations at MSP Communications.
For Andersen Corporation, while their corporate employees could work from home, that wasn’t an option for their production, logistics, installation and service workforce. To create a safe and functional on-site work environment, Andersen quickly evolved their plans, created committees, extra policies, procedures, contact tracing, Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) requirements, and new safety and testing protocols.
For the retail side of their business, Andersen also created a virtual consultation process that reduced the amount of time spent in customers’ homes.
“The health and safety of our employees and customers are the driving force and number one priority in our pandemic and post-pandemic plans,” says Sara Johnson, Health and Well-being Program Manager at Andersen Corporation.
2. Make it easy for people to move and be physically active
With the added stress of the pandemic and all of the change employees and their families have endured, healthy physical activity may have taken a back seat.
Andersen Corporation realized early on that to keep their employees connected and to help maintain both their mental and physical health, they needed an engagement committee. The committee identified many activities for teams to participate in to stay connected and healthy.
To encourage healthy activity during work, one employee started a virtual chair yoga session three to four times a week, inviting all employees who had an email address.
“Employees expressed how much they enjoyed these sessions and how they were bummed if they missed them,” explains Johnson. “Those who attended love them and said they want to make sure they continue.”
3. Focus on people first
Part of Andersen Corporation’s engagement committee’s efforts involved a complete culture shift in how they approached everyday work conversations.
“Before we would get down to business right away in our meetings, and now we use the first five minutes to be a bit more personable and ask how people are doing,” says Johnson.
Andersen also expanded their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefits, which include webinars and resources to help manage stress, depression, communicating effectively with children, and other issues.
[Note: HealthPartners’ EAP program provides a broad range of content on resiliency and work-life balance, with a specific focus on working through COVID challenges. There is also an opportunity to consult with a clinical counselor to provide more personal support.]
Both companies were determined to support employees in remaining connected. At Andersen, Johnson says, they made a point of encouraging employees to reach out to co-workers, perhaps inviting them to a casual call to catch up or to send a positive message.
MSP’s leadership also took time on several occasions to have one-on-one conversations with their employees to touch base on how they are doing. In-person collaborative meetings at a safe distance helped to protect their culture, keeping everyone connected. Providing mental health resources also supported their teams’ well-being during this stressful time.
“We’ve never had to work harder as a business, and we’ve never been more creative and smarter in our efforts to keep our employees safe, healthy and productive,” adds Authier.
It’s smart, creative coping strategies like these that many organizations such as Andersen and MSP Communications are leaning on as they plan for the near and longer-term future.
“Helping employees be physically, mentally, socially and emotionally fit can prepare them for the challenges of infectious diseases such as COVID-19,” says Pronk. “Promoting optimal health will not only enhance productivity and performance – it will also place emphasis on human-centric principles such as connectedness and adaptability, which are at the heart of continued organizational success.”