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March 3, 2020

5 Tips to Prepare Your Workplace for A Coronavirus Outbreak

Artemis Health

You’ve probably started hearing conversations (and even jokes) about the coronavirus around the water cooler in your office. News reports and government briefings are warning the U.S. to brace for a widespread outbreak of the illness, which could cost the economy billions of dollars and affect an estimated 40-70% of the population. There’s even talk of cancelling the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo due to coronavirus concerns. What can employers do to protect their employees and their organizations?

First, let’s take a closer look at what this global health crisis really is, and how it may affect workers and benefits leaders. It’s been dubbed “coronavirus” based on the shape of the actual virus, but it’s more specific name is COVID-19. Other outbreaks in the past have also fallen into the family of coronaviruses, including SARS and MERS. According to the CDC, most coronaviruses have their origins in animals, and it’s likely the same for COVID-19. The current best theories is that it spread to humans from either bats or pangolins. 

Since HR and Benefits professionals are on the forefront of employee health, you’ll likely take the lead in educating employees and enacting policies that help your business cope with the illness. If you choose the right responses and act quickly, you may be able to help your organization minimize lost work days, absenteeism, and the financial impact of coronavirus. 

We’ve gathered some tips from trusted sources to help benefits leaders get ahead of this health concern. Here are five ways you can prepare the workplace for coronavirus. 

Tip 1: Encourage hand washing and proper cough/sneeze etiquette  

It’s basic, but it works. Encourage employees to use basic hygienic techniques to prevent the spread of coronavirus and other communicable diseases. Firstly, the CDC recommends this hand washing protocol: 

  • Wash hands often, especially after sneezing or coughing 
  • Use soap and water 
  • Scrub for at least 20 seconds 
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands

HR and Benefits teams can send out email reminders to staff and put up flyers in restrooms and breakrooms to help staff remember to use these techniques.

Additionally, health experts recommend covering coughs and sneezing using the elbow or a tissue, not your hands. They suggest rewashing hands as often as possible after a cough or sneeze as well. While alcohol-based hand sanitizer will not necessarily kill a virus, it’s a good backup for workplaces where soap and water aren’t close at hand. Experts recommend using a sanitizer that’s 60-95% alcohol and rubbing hands together until they feel completely dry. 

You’ve probably seen news reports about face mask shortages and wondered if that’s something you should consider providing for employees. For now, the CDC is recommending that ONLY coronavirus patients who are already infected wear masks when leaving the house to seek medical care. Apparently, it’s more effective for sick individuals to wear the masks themselves (instead of healthy people wearing masks) as a means of stopping the airborne spread of the virus. 

These recommendations might seem like common sense, the kind of thing you learn in an elementary school classroom. They are! But it’s not always possible to enact them in the workplace, where the person coughing might be in a meeting, on the phone, or in a factory/warehouse setting. By using signage and communications from HR, you’ll remind workers to follow these guidelines. It’s also key that supervisors are aware and supportive of staff taking breaks that enable these hygiene protocols. Which leads us to our next tip.

Tip 2: Provide and enforce generous sick leave policies 

Did you know that a staggering 90% of workers have reported to work when they were sick? Or that only 20% of states have provisions to prevent workers from being fired if they miss work due to a quarantine? Many U.S. employees are scared that they’ll lose their jobs, be “written up,” or otherwise face disciplinary action for being ill. They’re also worried about eating up vacation time and not having the flexibility if they get sick later in the year. 

These statistics are very scary in the context of a global pandemic, and they most certainly increase the likelihood of a disease like coronavirus spreading in workplaces. HR and Benefits teams can help by advocating for generous, flexible, and mandatory sick leave policies that reassure workers and create a healthier workforce. 

Artemis Health suggests a few do’s and don’ts for a successful sick leave policy: 

  • DO educate team managers so they fully understand that the company wants people to stay home until they’re well. 
  • DO provide adequate sick days in your standard benefits package (we recommend starting with 5-10 days).
  • DO let employees know they can approach HR if they feel they’re being penalized for taking sick leave. 
  • DO look at staffing levels so employees don’t feel like they’re too busy to take sick leave.
  • DON’T combine sick leave and vacation leave in one “bucket.” If they are accrued separately, workers are less worried about running out. 
  • DON’T allow supervisors to discipline or otherwise “guilt-trip” workers who take sick leave.   

Remember, it’s critical to get management buy-in on a generous sick leave policy at every level so everyone in your organization feels comfortable taking the time off they need to get healthy. 

Tip 3: Allow remote work if your population is affected

The CDC has started issuing guidelines for how schools and businesses can help stop the spread of coronavirus, and one of their recommendations is to limit in-person meetings and gatherings. Remote work is clearly the answer to this guideline. While this is tough for some types of employers, others can immediately begin limiting non-essential travel and allow employees to work remotely. 

Thanks to video conferencing, the widespread adoption of high-speed internet, smartphones, and other tech tools, many “white collar” jobs are primed for remote work. Other businesses will have a more difficult time enacting remote work procedures. If you do see a number of sick employees in your population, we suggest HR and Benefits leaders advocate for remote work and work with IT leaders to make it as convenient for affected employees as possible.

Tip 4: Step up cleaning efforts

The CDC is recommending that schools, businesses, and homes take a proactive approach to stopping the spread of coronavirus by cleaning commonly touched surfaces, particularly if there’s been an infection in the population. While many offices and worksites are cleaned regularly, it’s often only once or twice a week. 

HR and Benefits leaders may advocate for a temporary increase in office cleaning, and health officials are placing a special emphasis on “high-touch areas.” These include door handles, conference room tables, bathrooms, break room counters and faucets, drawer pulls, time clocks, light switches, phones, keyboards, tablets, and more. 

Wuhan, the city in Hubei Province, China where the COVID-19 outbreak originated, has taken the extraordinary step of spraying bleach-based cleaners from large trucks on everything from city streets to bus stops to train stations. Experts say this is unlikely to make a big difference, since viruses cannot live on hard surfaces for long. But regular household cleaners on high-touch surfaces are still a good idea for offices, schools, and homes. 

Tip 5: Share Information 

One of the things that has set the COVID-19 outbreak apart from previous outbreaks like SARS is the Chinese government response, which has been faster and more transparent than in the past. While sharing information can cause panic and raise false alarms, it’s essential to provide people with the knowledge they need to stay healthy. Though large employers aren’t exactly in the same position as governments, states or municipalities in terms of communication, their actions are often the subject of news reports, too. It’s critical that businesses share information about how they’re handling employee health and safety accurately and quickly. 

This is a good time for HR and Benefits teams to rely on advice from benefits consultants, their counterparts in Public Relations, and other management teams around the company. Strategize and plan for how to communicate things like office closures, new work-from-home policies, travel restrictions, seeking medical care, and more. Decide how to handle it if and when an employee comes to work sick and is later diagnosed with coronavirus. For large enterprise employers, especially those who employ the majority of a municipal population, there is undoubtedly value in coordinating with local health departments early to develop plans and roll out solutions. 

Employees and their families need to be armed with information so they can stay healthy, keep their jobs, and maintain their dignity. It’s not easy for HR and Benefits leaders to run point when a health concern like coronavirus looms, but for many of us, it falls under a larger goal of improving employee wellness. The Business Group on Health also has a great primer for how employers can prepare for coronavirus in the U.S. We hope you’ll consider these tips when preparing your workplace for a potential coronavirus outbreak. 

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