Supporting employees through long-lasting pandemic effects

Talent leaders must understand and manage the long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the workforce.

According to a recent Willis Towers Watson (WTW) survey among more than 9,000 employees, a majority of U.S. workers highly value what employers have done to keep them safe; however, the reality is that this pandemic and the issues it creates are far from over. Workplace safety measures and strategies should always ensure employees feel as safe and protected as possible.

As reported in Talent Management earlier this year, vaccines are the most effective way to keep employees safe, but there are many additional measures leaders can take to ensure the safety, comfort and engagement of their employees. 

Safety and retention

Amid the Great Resignation, when attracting and retaining top talent is at a premium, making sure employees feel safe is one of the most important things an employer can do. “If people feel both safe and comfortable, they are likely to be much more engaged,” said Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader at Willis Towers Watson. “The value to an employer to have employees who are feeling both safe and comfortable is very high.” 

The survey also found that 84 percent of employees who feel safe and comfortable at work plan to stay with their employer for at least the next two years, versus just 42 percent of those who don’t feel safe. Additionally, more than half of employees who feel safe and comfortable at work say they are highly engaged compared with just 5 percent who don’t feel safe or comfortable.

Given the range of transmission rates across counties in the U.S., where just under 500 counties are deemed high risk according to the CDC, employers must continue to monitor the best safety practices for their people. “It’s different depending on the circumstances, which is really hard for employers,” said Dr. Levin-Scherz. “Because employers would like to have a single policy and procedure everywhere.” 

At this point in the pandemic, employers should be prepared to adapt safety measures for an increase in local transmission rates, such as providing adequate masks and managing onsite population density. 

For many employers who may have done most of their protective work behind the scenes, it’s important to communicate these measures to employees so they can feel protected. “Telling the stories about what the employer is doing, and what impact that has on employees, their families, customers and visitors is all very important,” said Dr. Levin-Scherz. The survey found employees generally felt “safer and more comfortable at work in places where there were more COVID preventive measures in place.”

Long Covid

According to the WTW survey, around 37 percent of respondents who had contracted COVID-19 still have long-term effects, among whom 71 percent are experiencing increases in anxiety, depression and lower productivity than those who have recovered. Studies indicate about 10 percent of people infected with COVID-19 will experience long COVID symptoms. According to the CDC, long COVID can affect any demographic, not just those in at-risk groups or who had a severe case of COVID-19 – the young and those who endured mild cases are just as susceptible.

Common symptoms for long COVID include respiratory and neurological effects such as shortness of breath, fatigue, headaches and severe brain fog that many find make it difficult to concentrate or even watch television – let alone be productive at work. Employers need to be knowledgeable about the effects of long COVID and know some employees aren’t comfortable speaking out about it or may not even identify that they have it. 

Talent leaders must make sure all levels of leadership are equipped with the tools needed to help support those dealing with lingering effects of COVID infections and long COVID. With proper training and support, employers can “be sure that they are reducing the stigma of this disease,” says Dr. Levin-Scherz. “People who suffer from these symptoms often feel like their symptoms are not being acknowledged or recognized.”

The best way to prevent long COVID is to get vaccinated and prevent contracting the virus in the first place. According to the WTW survey, 55 percent of employees support vaccine mandates, while 22 percent do not.

To improve management of employees with long COVID, employers must “think systematically about the kind of accommodations they should be providing,” said Dr. Levin-Scherz. Employers can manage those struggling with long COVID by allowing them to work part-time, work from home or even have a slightly different job while they recover, Dr. Levin-Scherz added. 

Employers should also check their disability policies to ensure employees with long COVID can be appropriately covered as we pass the two-year mark for the pandemic, with many disability policies often having two-year caps on “subjective symptoms” for employees with long-term disabilities due to COVID-19, says Dr. Levin-Scherz. 

Looking ahead

As pandemic protective measures fade away, employers must focus on building the resilience and cohesion of their workforce. With open lines of communication about what protections are in place for employees, organizations can maximize employee retention and engagement moving forward. 

As we learn more about long COVID cases, employers must keep up to date with the latest ways to support employees dealing with the lingering effects of an infection. There’s no doubt COVID-19 has permanently altered the workforce; it’s up to talent leaders to safely navigate the rest of the pandemic to best support their employees and organizations.