By Shantanu Nundy, M.D.
Disclaimer: These are the opinions of Shantanu Nundy and not the statements of his employer.
Of the 5,000 waking hours we have in a year, we spend about 2,000 of them at our places of work. In the United States, it’s employers that often provide health care coverage, and key benefits so people can live their healthiest lives. With such a critical role in people’s lives, we see employers and workplaces having a key role in our nation’s COVID-19 response.
How can employers help? We believe employers should consider keeping in mind three core principles from epidemiology and public health as part of their response strategy.
We currently don’t have a specific treatment or vaccine for COVID-19 and likely won’t for some time. As a result, our primary public health tool for responding to the current outbreak is mitigation. Two key ideas are: case finding – encouraging individuals to be open about possible infection and the possible source of the infection – and social distancing – reducing contact between healthy individuals and isolating those with known or suspected infection.
In an outbreak, as a virus spreads and new information becomes available, responsiveness to the latest data is critical. There is much we don’t know yet about COVID-19. We need to continually respond to new information and collect data, so our efforts are rooted in what’s happening on the ground and the latest science. Having a mechanism get the word out is critical.
Even in times of serious public health emergencies, people respond to incentives. Considering how we support employees who we ask to stay home when they are sick is essential. We want to incentivize the correct behavior, so considering technology to support remote work or expanding paid time off programs can have a big impact. If we ask people to get tested but don’t de-stigmatize those who test positive, less people will get tested. We need to use empathy to think about our employees and the broader context in which they act on policies that we enact.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach for employers nor their employees. There are some things employers can do:
Keeping Employees Healthy
High rates of employee engagement and behavior change are key to prevention. We need to identify creative opportunities to go farther than emails with static education content to behavior nudges and campaigns. Supporting opportunities to work from home and limiting travel give employees an opportunity for social distancing. Additionally, making telemedicine widely available, not only for those who may have coronavirus, but for routine or chronic care visits as well, as hospitals and clinics likely have higher risk of transmission than community settings.
Remove Barriers for Employees to Get Tested
Costs and other factors should be not be a barrier to testing. As The Miami Herald reported, an individual who returned from travel to China with symptoms and appropriately went to the ER to get tested, could owe thousands of dollars. In the end, it turned out not to be coronavirus — but he did the right thing. Some employees will have financial barriers to testing; others logistical barriers such as transportation or time off; and others emotional or social concerns.
Lead By Example
As always, leadership matters. We know that employees are expecting more from their employers, especially in situations like these. At Accolade, keeping informed about COVID-19 developments has become a priority with a daily meeting made up of leaders across the organization. We have been monitoring the situation and adjusting protocols and communications as necessary. Seeing leadership take actions can have a cascade effect across the company and keep employees healthy.
Dr. Shantanu Nundy serves as the Chief Medical Officer at Accolade, a personalized health and benefits solution, where he oversees the company’s clinical strategy and solutions that further support health outcomes for individuals and their families, and the experience and relationships they have with their providers. He also practices primary care at Neighborhood Health, improving health and advancing health equity in the Washington DC metro area.