It has been repeated ad nauseum that the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic stand to dramatically transform the relationship between employer and employee. Included in this conversation is the notion that employers will need to implement a more comprehensive approach to promote employee wellness.
What we’ve heard less about, however, is what this actually means, practically. Instead, the issue of the employer’s role in supporting vaccination efforts has become centered in this discussion. While employers have a role to play in supporting the vaccination of their workforce, focusing too tightly on this specific issue risks allowing employers to sidestep more fundamental challenges to establish and exemplify a long-term commitment to employee health and well-being.
The most acute and immediate way in which employers can support the health and well-being of their workforce is to support mass vaccination efforts. Whether it is advisable for an employer to require employees be vaccinated before returning to in-person work is subject to any number of variables relating to the nature of the work, the physical workspace, and local vaccine availability. However, what isn’t subject to debate is that employers should help support vaccination efforts. At a minimum, employers should allow employees to take time to get vaccinated—and pay them for those hours, as well as provide paid sick leave for employees who experience symptoms (primarily after the second dose). Ideally, employers would also help organize vaccination efforts for their employees, and provide resources to help them make appointments.
Employee vaccination is truly just a first step. If we are really at an inflection point in employer-employee relationships, we’d be wise to reexamine what the employer-employee social contract should include.
At a minimum we need to commit to safety, wellness, and privacy for all workers, at all levels, in all sectors. Meeting these conditions will not only improve employee satisfaction, but also reduce burnout and increase productivity as workers adapt to rapidly changing environments. Technology can make it more cost-effective than ever for employers to provide their workers the tools they need to remain safe and maintain or improve performance.
The toll of the pandemic has resulted in increased employer awareness of the myriad sources of stress in the lives of their workers, but “returning to normal” hardly means an absence of stressors. On top of existing stressors, employees will now be asked to adapt to a rapidly changing work environment. Therefore, it will be incumbent on employers to take a more holistic view of employee wellness. The virtual and digital spaces can be great avenues through which to offer mental and emotional health services and related educational services. Several platforms, such as One Medical, provide these resources as well.
Employee wellness should also encompass education and skill building. Those asked to quickly adopt new skills and master new systems will need high-quality and readily accessible training programs and resources. Similarly, those in managerial roles will need to be trained in motivating and overseeing fungible teams and employees dealing with rapidly changing professional demands, work environments, and personal-professional boundaries. Digital solutions once again offer opportunities to scale and schedule such programs.
The safety of all employees is paramount, both for their health and well-being and for the performance of the organization. Employers that have transitioned to largely virtual workplaces should not rush a return to full or hybrid in-person work until they are confident they are providing a safe environment for all.
Health screening, monitoring emergence of symptoms, testing, and contact tracing are critical pillars of an employee safety program. Comprehensive platforms such as One Medical and Carbon Health combine virtual primary care with testing programs, contact tracing, and educational programs. Such programs could be augmented by wearables and apps that monitor symptoms, like Fitbit’s device or the Binah Team app.
In the course of keeping employees safe and providing them the resources they need to reskill and upskill, employers find themselves with increased need and opportunity to monitor their employees’ health and behavior, further blurring the lines between the personal and professional. Though employees are justifiably reticent to share health data with their employers and consent to increased monitoring, some concessions will be needed. Employers need to be prudent by establishing, communicating, and enforcing strict privacy measures to ensure they are only collecting necessary data used for narrow employee-first purposes like reliable and robust safety programs.
Equitable Access to Wellness, Safety, and Privacy
The tools to facilitate a greater commitment to employee health exist, but while technology itself may be democratizing force, access to technology is not. As we move out of the pandemic, strict regulations establishing high standards for employee safety programs are needed, as are mechanisms to provide employers with resources to meet those requirements if they can’t otherwise afford them. Without a strong, resource-backed commitment to safe workspaces and employee wellness for all, we risk slipping into a “future of work” that expands existing health and wealth gaps between privileged white-collar workers and those in lower-wage sectors, including many we have come to define as “essential.”
Katrin Zimmermann is managing director of TLGG.