There’s no question that the pandemic will have a lasting impact on the workforce. COVID-19 caused millions of businesses and employees to shift to a virtual work environment. But as the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues and more people get vaccinated, employers are starting to think about when and how to have employees return to work.
As of June 29, 2021, the U.S. administered over 325 million vaccine doses.1 Over 54% of the U.S. population received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with over 46% of the population fully vaccinated.2
But it’s not as easy as waiting until vaccine numbers increase before employees can return to work. Dr. Adam L. Seidner, Chief Medical Officer at The Hartford, recommends employers still be vigilant and follow public health guidelines in the workplace. That’s because variants continue to pose a threat to the population.
Since March, the U.K. variant of COVID-19, known as B.1.1.7, was the dominant strain in the U.S. Between May 23 and June 5, B.1.1.7 caused 60% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. However, a new variant, known as the Delta strain, has emerged and there’s concern that it will become the new dominant strain in the U.S.
First identified in India, the Delta strain or B.1.617.2, is quickly spreading throughout the country and world. In the two weeks ending on March 27, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded the Delta variant causing 0% of COVID-19 cases.3
The number of positive cases due to the Delta variant significantly increased over a more than two-month period. In the two weeks ending on June 19, the CDC predicts the Delta variant will be responsible for 20.6% of COVID-19 cases.4 That’s more than double the percentage of cases recorded from the two weeks ending on June 5.5
As the number of cases caused by the Delta variant increased, the U.K variant cases were decreasing. From May 9 to June 5, the percentage of cases caused by the U.K. variant dropped 9.6%.
“New variant strains can cause greater symptoms and may be more contagious,” Seidner explained. “Employers need to be transparent and have a thorough strategy so there aren’t any surprises.”
If you’re planning to bring your workers back to the office, learn how you can create a strategy that aims to keep them safe and allows for a smooth return to work.
Look Into a Phased Approach for Returning to Work
If your workforce is currently working from home, bringing every worker back at the same time can be dangerous. Doing so can lead to increased transmission and positive cases. A phased approach gives you the opportunity to make adjustments and changes if issues come up.
A return to work plan with multiple phases will require employers to redefine how their business offices run, Seidner noted. For example, employees may only be able to use the escalators to go up. If they want to go down, they may have to take the stairs to ensure there’s social distancing between employees. Employers may also need to develop a plan for the cafeteria, which can include:
- New hours of operation
- One-way traffic flow
- Encouraging the use of contactless payments
“Anything in the office space – whether it’s equipment, computers or ways to get around the building and campus – needs to be considered when bringing employees back to work,” Seidner said.
Continue Monitoring Data and Trends Before, During and After Employee Return to Work
Monitoring data and trends is an essential part of a successful return-to-work strategy. Before you bring your employees back to work, Seidner suggests looking at the trends within the community. Paying attention to the positive cases and the number of tests administered can give you an idea of how your local community is handling COVID-19.
Data tracking doesn’t stop after you let employees return to work, though. In fact, Seidner emphasized that employers should use data to help make decisions related to their return-to-work plan. You can use the data to help you decide when it’s a good time to move to the next phase of your plan. If you find there are a few positive cases as employees come back to the office, it doesn’t mean you have to panic.
“You wouldn’t need to roll back to an earlier phase even if you had a case or two,” Seidner explained. “Unless you have a whole population sick, there’s no need to do that. Instead, keep what’s in place and slow down the number of employees returning to the office.”
Once there haven’t been any outbreaks or spikes for a month, Seidner said it’s a good sign that an employer can move onto the next phase of their return-to-work plan.
Vaccines and Addressing Employees Who Don’t Get Vaccinated
It’s expected that a majority of the U.S. population will get vaccinated against COVID-19. Despite this, some people may not get the vaccine because they don’t feel comfortable. Unless every employee voluntarily discloses they received a vaccine, Seidner acknowledged that it would be difficult to know who got vaccinated.
If any of your employees are hesitant about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, Seidner said providing education and communication is key. The CDC says there are many factors behind why someone doesn’t get vaccinated, but that confidence in the vaccines, the vaccinator and the system all support the decision to get a vaccine.6
You can get resources and key messages from the CDC to help build vaccine confidence
among your employees.
Pay Attention to Employee Psychological and Behavioral Issues
Working virtually for an extended period of time, combined with local restrictions and ongoing news of the pandemic, can deeply affect a person. In February 2021, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) conducted a survey to look at the impact COVID-19 had on mental health
The organization found that 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder.7 This is an increase from the 1 in 10 adults that reported these symptoms from January to June 2019 – about a year before the pandemic.8
The KFF’s survey may not be surprising to some. Researchers have studied and consistently found that social isolation and loneliness were linked to worse cardiovascular and mental health outcomes.9
“It’s not going to be uncommon for workers returning to the office during the pandemic or after COVID-19 to feel anxiety, stress and paranoia,” Seidner said. “There’s anxiety with the unknown. They may be worried about going back to the office and getting sick or experiencing an outbreak.”
Seidner recommended that employers can work with their HR department to create a plan to help employees feel at ease. One idea is to offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
. This gives employees access to services to help them with personal or work-related problems.
It’s also imperative for supervisors and managers to have training on how to recognize if a worker is struggling. A slip in performance may occur shortly after an employee returns to work, so managers need to be comfortable with having a conversation to understand what’s going on.
Make sure managers know about resources and services that can help employees. Encourage them to make the initial connection between the service and the employee, Seidner said.
“I call it a warm handoff,” Seidner explained. “Instead of having a manager or supervisor telling their employee that they should call this number or use this service, help them make the connection. Don’t just say, ‘Do this’ and walk away.”
Communication at All Levels Is Key
Because of public health guidelines and recommendations to reduce infections, it’s likely the workplace will be different than when employees were last in the office. There may be:
- Signs directing the flow of traffic
- More hand sanitizing stations throughout the building
- Physical barriers to encourage social distancing
- Restrictions in certain plans to limit the number of people, such as elevators
Communicating with employees on a regular basis is a key piece to a successful return-to-work strategy. Messaging should help reduce employees’ fears or anxiety, so it’s important for business leaders and executives to connect with workers. The goal, Seidner said, is to keep employees informed so they aren’t caught off guard about anything.
“There’s a need to be proactive with communication,” Seidner explained. “Explain to employees ahead of time what to expect when they return to the office. Tell them what’s changed and what the ‘new normal’ looks like.”
In addition, it’s essential to have a crisis management process in place. If there’s an outbreak or an emergency happens, employees need to get notified quickly and know about next steps.
“Think about crisis intervention and critical incident debriefing. You have to think about things at this level and to prepare for the worst case scenario,” Seidner said. “Ongoing communication is going to be critical for employers to make sure their employees know what’s happening.”
Employee Safety in the Workplace: A Top Priority
As employers think about work in a post-COVID-19 world
, many wonder what the best way is to bring workers back to the office. But, there’s not an easy answer. Every company is unique, so plans for returning to work during the pandemic will be specific to each business.
If possible, bringing employees back to work in a phased plan can help reduce transmissions among workers. Throughout the entire return-to-work process, it’s imperative that employers continue to monitor data and trends in and outside of the workplace. And to ensure for a smooth return, communicate regularly with employees about any changes or issues.
“The trends are really important, especially with variant strains in the U.S. You'll see if there’s a spike or peak in the area,” Seidner said. “So, it’s crucial that employers track this data and communicate with their employees, providing education and resources for them to use."
1,2 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States”
3,5 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “COVID Data Tracker: Variant Proportions”
4 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “COVID Data Tracker Weekly Review: June 25, 2021”
6 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Vaccinate With Confidence”
7,8 Kaiser Family Foundation, “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use”
9 Science Direct, “An Overview of Systematic Reviews on the Public Health Consequences of Social Isolation and Loneliness”
The information provided in these materials is intended to be general and advisory in nature. It shall not be considered legal advice. The Hartford does not warrant that the implementation of any view or recommendation contained herein will: (i) result in the elimination of any unsafe conditions at your business locations or with respect to your business operations; or (ii) be an appropriate legal or business practice. The Hartford assumes no responsibility for the control or correction of hazards or legal compliance with respect to your business practices, and the views and recommendations contained herein shall not constitute our undertaking, on your behalf or for the benefit of others, to determine or warrant that your business premises, locations or operations are safe or healthful, or are in compliance with any law, rule or regulation. Readers seeking to resolve specific safety, legal or business issues or concerns related to the information provided in these materials should consult their safety consultant, attorney or business advisors. All information and representations herein are as of May 2021.