Considerations Revealed as Employers Plan to Return to Work

May 7, 2020

As employers plan to return to the workplace, Mercer survey reveals key considerations from employers’ experience with essential workers and COVID-19.

As employers in the United States begin planning for the return of their non-essential workforces to worksites in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, a recent Mercer survey found some significant challenges they may face.

These organizations can learn much from the experiences of employers of essential workers who have remained at their worksites throughout the pandemic. Most notably, nearly 45% of responding employers with essential workers have had issues with employees not coming to work because they are afraid of getting sick. This problem is more widespread in industries like retail/wholesale, manufacturing, and healthcare, where the risk of exposure is higher.

“The fact that so many employers have reported issues with employees not coming to worksites due to fear of becoming ill underscores that the first priority is to develop a comprehensive plan to keep employees safe at work,” says Dr. David Zieg, Mercer’s Clinical Services Leader. “The second priority is to clearly communicate this plan to employees so as to allay their fears.”

Related: Could the US, World Benefit From "Whole Person Care" Program?

The most important safety consideration, by far, is to maintain adequate distancing. While nearly all employers of essential workers have made changes to ensure employees keep the proper distance from coworkers and customers, nearly 30% say they have had problems doing so. There is not one distancing solution that will work in all situations, so employers will need a plan that best suits their specific workplace and staffing needs.

Overcoming the physical distancing challenge may also mean fewer employees in a worksite at a given time.

According to the survey, 63% of respondents planning for return to worksites are considering “staggered returns” with measures such as having employees whose last names start with A-M working on certain days and N-Z working other days. Other employers, about 44%, say they will create smaller work groups in order to limit the mixing of employees and groups in the workplace at the same time.

While 43% of respondents with essential workers say they have conducted COVID-19 screenings and assessments on-site, only about 35% of the respondents planning for return to work say they will conduct COVID-19 screening and assessments on-site, most commonly with temperature screenings at 26% and/or by administering a symptom questionnaire at 20%. 

Although antibody testing is receiving heightened attention, just 4% of all respondents say they are planning to conduct serology screening for antibodies. This low percentage may reflect concerns about the reliability of the tests as well as the fact that much is still unknown about immunity to COVID-19. Just 3% say they will screen for the presence of the virus.

Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents, about 63%, planning for the return to the workplace say they will provide employees with masks. However, based on the experience of employers with essential workers, this could be challenging.

About 37% of respondents with essential workers reported they have had difficulty finding enough masks to purchase.

“To be an effective strategy, everyone in a worksite needs to wear a mask to ensure that any person carrying the virus without being aware of it is wearing one. That’s why it’s concerning that employers report difficulties in purchasing masks for their essential workers,” says Zieg. “Employers should understand that general-use facemasks that improve respiratory hygiene do not need to be surgical masks or N-95 masks; those should be reserved for healthcare workers. The CDC has noted cotton masks can be used for this purpose.” 

With employers facing the complexity of staggered returns, variances of testing and mask availability, many have speculated that keeping non-essential workers “virtual” will be a popular and effective way for employers to ensure social distance and safety.

The reality is not all employers can, or desire, to continue virtual working arrangements. While 38% say that employees will continue to work virtually in the short-term and return to on-site working when deemed safe, only 8% say they will continue to allow most employees to continue to work virtually as much as possible, regardless of social distancing rules. Even among respondents in high-tech companies, where virtual work was relatively common before the pandemic, only 14% say they would support long-term virtual working for all employees.

“History has shown that during a crisis, employers that put their people first and interact with them empathetically emerge with a much stronger and engaged workforce,” says Susan Haberman, senior partner and U.S. Career Leader for Mercer. “For many employers, leading with empathy will mean accepting that not all employees will be ready to return to the worksite once it opens. They should communicate to employees the steps they have taken to ensure their safety, but also acknowledge their apprehension, whether it is about safety, family obligations or other legitimate concerns.”