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How Are Employers Addressing Safety and Well-being Implications in Their Reopening Plans?


Based on findings from our COVID-19 Reopening the Workplace Survey, employers are increasing focus on safety, enhancing well-being programs, and providing flexibility to accommodate employees who may be at-risk or may shoulder a greater caregiving responsibility, said Regina Ihrke, senior director and wellbeing leader of Willis Towers Watson in North America.

Based on findings from our COVID-19 Reopening the Workplace Survey, employers are increasing focus on safety, enhancing well-being programs, and providing flexibility to accommodate employees who may be at-risk or may shoulder a greater caregiving responsibility, said Regina Ihrke, senior director and wellbeing leader of Willis Towers Watson in North America.


AJMC®: Hello, I'm Matthew Gavidia. Today on the MJH Life Sciences’ Medical World News, The American Journal of Managed Care® is pleased to welcome Regina Ihrke, senior director and wellbeing leader of Willis Towers Watson in North America. Can you just introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your work?

Ihrke: Thank you! Yes, I lead all of our kind of intellectual capital across Willis Towers Watson in the well-being space. So, when we say things like that there is obviously—wellness kind of started in the kind of health care space about solving for physical well-being, and as the years, 10 to 15 years have kind of evolved, we pulled areas together to make it more of about solving for the person and their issue, which causes things like financial well-being so it has experts from our retirement practice involved. It has a big, key piece of employee insights, like what employees really want and hearing that voice from them, and then how do they engage with programs. So, it has our employee experience team and also kind of how we communicate to those programs from an employer perspective. So, it has health care, retirement kind of perspectives, insights and communications perspectives.

Then, we'll talk through this of what's evolving in the wellbeing space, things like inclusion and diversity lens. Then obviously, the post-pandemic world has kind of created more of a holistic view of how we solve. So, I'm there, connecting all of these smart people that I work with across Willis Towers Watson, to bring the best thought process to solve for well-being for employees across the country and across North America.

AJMC®: Employee mental health has become a prominent factor amid the pandemic, with rising rates of conditions such as anxiety and depression being indicated by a great number of studies. How can safety measures help alleviate the worry that may come with returning to the workplace, especially as COVID-19 continues to surge nationwide?

Ihrke: So, we have been doing a number of surveys I would say on a weekly basis since the pandemic hit. The most recent 1 that we're talking about today is called the Reopening the Workplace Survey that was done for just across the United States, and we're kind of working on it through the globe now—how we adapt that to those questionnaires.

That survey was about the health, safety, and well-being of what employers tactics are and what they're planning. I would say the number 1 priority from all of that from HR is really around communication. I think when they ranked what their priorities were the highest priority at 69% was about communication. That from what are the plans, leadership commitment to the health, safety and well-being of their employees and their families, and really trying to be transparent on what are all of the tactics that are being done. From areas like, how do we create a different work life experience in the workplace from hygiene, PPE [personal protective equipment], screening and testing as you enter the workplace or before you enter the workplace, and also including very well communicated and thought through policies and procedures on if you have symptoms, if you have COVID-19, if you have anxiety concerns going to your question on mental health and anxiety, or if you're vulnerable to be able to get some of those activities like if you're at a higher age bracket, or a different, specific race, that there is communication and policies and procedures to protect those employees so that they can work from home as long as they can. Then also kind of communicating the pieces of those that have to go into the workplace every day.

So, that's a key piece and then I would say the screening piece, which has been the most prominent in kind of the safety metrics, is 90% of employers are doing some type of screening, whether it be symptom checking, like how are you feeling today to checking temperatures at the worksite. Then we're starting to start to see what the testing strategies look like.

Now, I think if you and I were having this conversation in March, I would have said 90% of employers, we're going to do COVID-19 testing on site. Our surveys are showing probably less than 15% will be doing COVID-19 testing on site. Partly, there's just a lot of complications with it from the expense that it is to cover it to things like just the process of how it's going to be done and does that sell for anything different than just symptom checking and temperature checking that’s out there from the false positives. So, the key piece again, lots of different metrics and tactics are being done by organizations, and it's about packaging them and communicating them effectively to your entire employee base so that you understand kind of what those metrics are, tactics are. Then if there's a voice that you could have, if you are concerned about actually reentering the workplace at some point in time.

AJMC®: Just to build off that, can you just discuss how the study was conducted and what measures were implemented?

Ihrke: So, this survey was launched in June, middle of June, and we just released the results June 22. We had over 550 employers respond to the survey, and it represents about 5.3 million employees. We have a really even distribution of industries. Manufacturing was definitely the highest at 26% representation, and everyone else was in this 15 percentile service. Industries like general service, health care, IT, financial services, energy and utilities, and some retail. Retail is probably a little bit smaller than we expected it to.

The survey covered many different areas. It started with some questions on just basic strategy—what are your plans for reopening, how many people are in your work sites today versus how many do you plan to have there by the end of first quarter 2021. We had to pick a date, not knowing what's happening in surges that are happening right now. That was a date we felt like we were comfortable with.

From how many will be working on site to how many are going to be working from home. What are flex schedules that organizations are thinking through, in addition to furloughs, unfortunately, and layoffs, and other significant impacts like pay changes and kind of changes to benefit plans.

Then there was a whole section on kind of leadership—what has leadership messaging been? How have they really empowered employees to be a bigger voice than they have before? From many things–we're all changing how we work from the new normal, so, how do they drive how we change because we're all kind of learning and trying to figure this out together and doing that crowdsourcing.

Also, as we've had more new things now arise like racial disparities and social injustice that’s happening about the race voice that's happening as well. Then of course, we had tactics in the safety metrics like PPE, social distancing, kind of travel, like when will that kind of lead up, and then a whole host of items on strategic tactics in the well-being space, including kind of strategy, digital and virtual care areas, leave policies, and then kind of listening and communication.

So, it was a pretty long survey—we have about 75 pages of great data and we're tracking that data, as we will continue to do surveys like this the rest of the year. There are some comparisons that we did from what we asked in April compared to what we did in June, where people's thoughts and processes were, and we'll continue to kind of measure that throughout the year.

AJMC®: Notably, in the survey, 71% stated that they have developed workplace safety and employee safety policies. Beyond what is being implemented in the workplace, how do these policies cater to employees?

Ihrke: So, let's start maybe with remote worker which seems to be the one that's on the news the most. So, in 2019, 11% of the workforce was working from home. I think right now for those that can work from home, like 70% are working from home. We expect by the end of the first quarter that we'll have about 35% of the workforce working from home.

So, that to me says we're going to make a major shift back to the workplace, but there is a trend happening right now of strategies of working from home that haven't been addressed before. Let's start with things basic as tactics of what is the working from home stipend. We all kind of shut down and really now need to assess—if you have a significant population working from home, and we're not giving the appropriate stipend for things like better WiFi, monitors, ergonomic chairs is a big 1, and desks for people. Those are some pieces that we're seeing as being a trending area of how to bump that up to help and support the right types of employees out there.

In addition, there’s pieces like caregiving. So, caregiving was kind of starting to trend in 2019 as something of a consideration. It was out there really to kind of address the major focus of women in the workplace and continuing to try to support women leaders. Now what we're seeing is obviously, the caregiving world is a much different world.

We are all working from home, and we have lots of different ages of children. So, from an e-learning perspective, all the way down to babies at home as people are trying to balance that with work, and what is that caregiving support look like from not just emergency leave for caregivers—that was kind of where most organizations focus, but things like are you going to be able to give a stipend to help you kind of pay for some services that you didn't have to before.

From nannies, from on-site daycare, from tutors as well—that's another key thing as we're starting to look at for the fall and trying to understand where, in what cities and states that will have different markets of schools going back at different stages.

Then you kind of have those that are having to go into the workplace. There’s key pieces like a lot of those people that never shut down or never left, and looking at things like, what do we need to do about alternative ways of transportation for those that are taking public transportation that are out there. We saw that a lot first in the health care worker space from trying to provide them Uber and Lyft support that's happening.

Then really, those that are kind of going in from a manufacturing perspective, how they're seeing their work be more flexible—when are the hours that they're working or going to be, how do they be able to have that voice and be much more open to saying, “I can't work at this time and this time because I got kids at home,” and being able to listen to those needs that are out there.

So that's kind of from that policy, kind of adjustment workforce that we have. Then what we also kind of see trending right now is as there are concerns on loneliness and isolation, over productivity, nobody taking PTO and vacation time, is what is this kind of ongoing stress and anxiety that's going to be happening in the workplace.

Most organizations started with providing their EAP [employee assistance program] as a solution, but unfortunately, we've seen EAP utilization actually go down since the pandemic hit in March than it was pre-pandemic. So, there's much more of understanding what employees need at different levels. Do they want just articles on your website? Do they want some digital technology to help them through stress—things like you see advertised on TV that are more mainstream these days, to provide those breaks and time to do things like get outside, get some fresh air, stretch breaks, yoga.

Then we're also starting to see forced vacation or holiday time outside of the norm. So, we have a lot of organizations, especially taking the holiday weekend and saying maybe Friday is your holiday for Fourth of July, but now Monday is also going to be your forced holiday as well for a mental health day. We're starting to see more and more organizations start to put those in because I think PTO vacation is down 40% right now compared to where it would be normally.

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