Leading Through the Surge: Using What We’ve Learned

Over the past seven months, Mercer has conducted a series of surveys to provide a platform for employers to share their experiences with the coronavirus – in particular, the actions taken to protect their employees and their businesses. Today the US is experiencing record numbers of cases and deaths. Even as news of the first vaccinations brings hope, the reality is that for now, we need to stick with the basics of preventing the spread of the virus and supporting employees and their families coping with a range of difficult and stressful circumstances. To that end, we reviewed past survey responses to identify the themes that employers should continue to keep top of mind. You can read the full report, but in the post we’ll touch on the most important highlights.

First, the good news: In our September survey, employer respondents were optimistic about their business outlook for the next six months, with 32% expecting growth relative to pre-COVID times, and 46% expecting similar results to what they were pre-COVID. Fewer than a fourth expected a decline in their business results. Clearly, some business sectors have been hit much harder than others. But this level of optimism among the majority of respondents is heartening. To weather this phase of the pandemic and prepare for success in 2021, employers will need to pay focused attention in five key areas, discussed below.

Leave policies that flex to fit the times

One learning from 2020 is the importance of paid leave to ensure that employees don’t show up at their worksites when they are sick or have been exposed. Many employers had implemented emergency leave policies by the summer, but some offered paid leave for only one period of quarantine and others required employees to use existing PTO . Now, in the midst of another resurgence, it’s not unlikely that a worker who quarantined earlier in the year might need to quarantine again.

Most emergency leave policies are set to expire by the end of the year, but the pandemic clearly is not. To determine the best course moving forward, employers need to review their data to answer some key questions: What percent of employees have exhausted their leave already? Are those employees in a segment of the business that cannot work remotely? Have employees built up a surplus of PTO that could be used for quarantines? Does the list of eligible reasons for emergency leave include school closings and, if not, should it? According to Mercer’s Simon Camaj and Rich Fuerstenberg, experts in leave and disability, employers might take this opportunity to revisit unlimited PTO policies. While not right for all organizations, unlimited PTO not only addresses the issue of excess accrued PTO, but also offers flexibility without increasing time off allowances or implementing policy changes to administer.

Keeping employees safe at work

Most companies have returned at least some portion of their employees to the workplace, even though the overall percentage of US employees back at the worksite remains low. Employers should maintain requirements for physical distancing, wearing facemasks, handwashing, and cleaning and disinfecting -- because they work. The majority of survey respondents have implemented a variety of screening measures, which help to instill employee confidence in their safety at the worksite. Most commonly, employers require workers to take a self-administered symptom and exposure questionnaire and/or administering temperature screenings onsite. However, in our most recent survey, which closed in November, just 10% were conducting onsite PCR/antigen testing for the virus; it is likely that administrative complexity, supply issues, and expense have been barriers to more widespread testing. The majority of respondents have reported that employees have largely reacted positively to the onsite safety measures that they have implemented.

Flexibility now and for the future

Employers agree: When the pandemic finally ends, they will build on the success of remote working. Many are already looking to the future to define an inclusive workforce plan that allows for flexibility at scale. Such a plan will need to encompass many elements of employee support and engagement. To give just one example here, in our June survey, when many employers were still unsure how much longer it would be before it was safe for employees to return to their physical workplaces, only about half said they assisted with remote working expenses. By September, about two thirds reported providing equipment or reimbursing remote working expenses for electronic equipment, ergonomic and non-ergonomic office furniture, and even internet fees.

Caregiving support

Schools are not returning to regular schedules any time soon, and working parents need flexibility and practical caregiving support from their employers. Employers have responded to disruptions in school schedules or caregiver services by offering more flexibility. In Mercer’s September survey, 51% of respondents reported that they have allowed parents to change their schedules and 29% allow parents to perform other work that can be done outside of normal business hours. A small number of respondents provide some type of actual childcare benefit: onsite childcare, a back-up childcare service, or subsidized regular childcare. In our September survey, 9% of respondents said they were responding to school disruptions by providing new childcare benefits such as subsidizing tutors or supporting learning pods. It is likely that disrupted school schedules and childcare needs will continue to challenge US workers and businesses in 2021. Making headway on this difficult problem will require dedicated focus and creative thinking.

Refocusing health and well-being strategies

With the pandemic disrupting healthcare utilization, many employers experienced lower-than-expected health plan cost in 2020, and most are projecting moderate health plan cost increases for 2021 – although cost projections remain a moving target at this point. But with a little breathing room on cost, most employers chose to spare employees major changes in their health plans for 2021. Instead, they focused on two areas of healthcare that have been in the spotlight during the pandemic. First is support for employee well-being, particularly in the area of behavioral health (71% of respondents in our September survey said this was a focus for 2021). Already in short supply, behavioral health care is needed more than ever due to the stress and isolation of the pandemic, and employers have made it a priority to expand access to care and to promote it with their employees. 

Second is telemedicine, which has experienced phenomenal growth during a time when in-person visits to healthcare facilities would increase the risk of disease transmission – 59% of respondents said this would be a focus). We were pleasantly surprised when our June survey found that a strong majority of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with their telemedicine vendor’s performance under the pressures of the pandemic, further bolstering the case for virtual care going forward.

As much as we devoutly hope we have entered the last phase of the pandemic, we are still months away from widespread access to the vaccine and can’t afford to be complacent. Using hard-won knowledge gained over the course of the year, employers can be more proactive in 2021 – while remaining ready to adjust to changing conditions. A final thought: Communication matters now as much as at the beginning of the pandemic and employees will have new questions and concerns as vaccines become available. You are a trusted source of information for your employees, so be sure your own sources of information are reliable and up-to-date as situations change around the country.

Download the complete summary report on Mercer’s 2020 COVID survey series here: Leading through the pandemic.

Beth Umland
by Beth Umland

Director of Research, Health, Mercer

Anna Tran
by Anna Tran

Senior Associate, Total Health Management

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