We are at an inflection point in the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately for us in North America, case rates, hospitalizations and deaths have all diminished significantly in the wake of the Omicron surge that began this January, and we are now seeing a major move away from regulations regarding masks, vaccines and social restrictions. Most Americans have a serious case of COVID fatigue and want to get back to the activities that kept us busy before the pandemic.
Certainly, HR departments could use a break from the additional burdens imposed by the pandemic. A recent Mercer survey of more than 300 employers found that only 8% of companies that don’t have a worksite vaccination or testing requirement already in place would considering adding one at this point, and nearly half (49%) have definitely decided against it. Just 13% of survey respondents say employees must get a booster shot to be considered fully vaccinated (42% were waiting for further guidance).
Employers with a vaccination mandate in place may start to weigh the pros and cons of keeping it if case rates remain low. Obviously, an important factor will be the response of the company’s employees thus far. The survey found that about a third of respondents that imposed a mandate have seen some increase in turnover as a result (typically less than 5% above normal levels). It also found that 22% of respondents without mandates have seen employees refusing to return to worksites due to safety concerns (again, typically fewer than 5%).
Apart from vaccination mandates, within today's fairly optimistic environment, important questions for employers remain: How to make sure that the workplace is safe, and how to help employees feel confident as they return to the office – or as safety measures they are now accustomed to are rolled back? Ideally, we will use the lessons learned over the past two years to ensure we will be ready when something new comes our way. Here are a few considerations worth thinking about as we move forward.
Tracking vaccination status. Nearly four out of five survey respondents (78%) are currently tracking vaccination status, most often by requiring employees to provide proof of vaccination directly to the employer. Whether or not you will require worksite vaccinations going forward, tracking vaccination status is still important given there are different quarantine guidelines for vaccinated and unvaccinated people that remain in place (per the CDC, unvaccinated people are advised to stay home for the first five days after exposure). Having vaccination tracking in place will be especially valuable if a new and more concerning variant were to start circulating and create the need to return to stricter safety measures.
Masks at the worksite. About two-thirds of respondents still have some kind of mask requirement (19% require only unvaccinated employees to mask). We’re seeing employers beginning to drop these requirements as the public health requirements change. Consideration should be given to supporting individuals who may choose to continue masking, either because they or a family member are immune-compromised and must protect their health, or simply because they have found comfort in wearing masks and want to continue to do so during this time of transition. In addition, the CDC still advises both vaccinated and unvaccinated people to wear masks after exposure to an active case of COVID.
Ventilation. A workplace safety measure that does not impose upon employees but can significantly reduce the spread of COVID and other viruses such as flu is proper air movement and filtration. Over a fourth of survey respondents (27%) are already addressing this important issue.
Rapid response teamwork. One of the most important lessons learned from this very difficult time – a true silver lining – is that teamwork works. Nearly three-fourths of respondents created pandemic response committees and 55% plan to keep them in place going forward. In so many organizations, the interchange between executives and colleagues in HR, Safety, Risk, Communications, and Real Estate has not only allowed for rapid action in the face of shifting conditions created by the pandemic but has helped to establish a more integrated approach to people and policies. Maintaining these relationships provides an ongoing opportunity for collaboration. While we can hope we won’t be called up to face such an intense experience again anytime soon, it is important that this hard-won capability remains in place for when the need arises.
If COVID does become endemic like the flu – always present and with varying severity from year to year – then, just like the flu, it will be an employee health issue. This means vaccinations and boosters should be promoted to help keep people healthy. Unfortunately, COVID is unlike the flu in that it causes long-term symptoms in about 20-50% of people who get it and are not vaccinated, and in up to 10% of people who get it and are vaccinated. The severity of the symptoms and the impact of the condition on a person’s ability to participate in work vary and can be very disabling. In communicating your ongoing worksite safety measures to employees, you might consider emphasizing this as a key reason that you will continue to take steps to prevent COVID infections at your worksites.
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