Let’s Beat This Thing

An unwelcome burden has fallen onto business leaders, but they’ll be crucial in the fight against COVID-19 in the workplace.

By Jeff Spencer

If your business is among those still operating at full steam two weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic and economic shut-down, congratulations: You are an exception to the new normal. For most businesses, and especially the small ones, the threat of this pandemic has ushered in unwanted duties managing a health crisis that impacts your staff, while also trying to manage the impact of reduced cash flows, disrupted supply chains and new local regulatory actions. 

With a thousand factors at play, let’s focus first on your most important assets: Your people. By now, you should be well aware that COVID-19 is spread from person to person. That puts a special burden on you to immediately notify others should a case occur in a work environment. 

 A recent study confirms that fewer than 2 ercent of those infected developed symptoms within 2.2 days. The estimated time from being exposed to the development of symptoms is a median of 5.1 days. Estimated time until development of a fever was 5.7 days. Of those who are the latest to develop symptoms, 97.5 percent of those infected had symptoms appear by 11.5 days. 

For companies that have workers in close contact with one another, those numbers should be alarming. That’s why so many companies have moved, and quickly, to remote work platforms for as many of their workers as possible, and continue to innovate with new processes to keep work flowing as close to the regular pace as possible—and in some cases, even improve efficiencies. 

If a member of your staff has tested positive for  the virus, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to know exactly when the employee became contagious. Co-workers who were exposed and contracted COVID-19 will start having symptoms about 50 percent of the time. The challenge is that the worker who has been infected has also been at work, and exposing others for multiple days. Thus, the high rate of spread once the virus enters a community … or business. This is a real problem when an employer is attempting to limit the spread. 

All employees should use social distancing, the workspaces and other shared spaces should be cleaned regularly and thoroughly, and the workers should use hand-washing exten-sively and retrain themselves not to touch their faces. 

But, after a confirmed case is reported, employers should communicate to workers that they may have been exposed, monitor for fever and other symptoms, and instruct them not to come in if a fever of 100 degrees or symptoms of a sore throat, cough, or shortness of breath occur. If deemed necessary (depending on the compliance protocols), temperature-checking could occur before employees enter the premises. 

In reality, full compliance with these guidelines is very challenging. It won’t be long before we know how well the safety measures worked as other employees monitor for symptoms. 

As for returning to work safely after recovery from the virus, the same study concludes that “scientists could not grow viruses from throat swabs or sputum specimens after day 8 of illness from people who had mild infections.” For those with moderate to severe symptoms, the jury is still out on when they can return to work. 

Because of all of this, managing the COVID-19 virus in the workplace is going to present significant challenges. 

The key is going to be educating, encouraging, and supporting employees, following the CDC’s guidelines for social distancing and personal hygiene, as well as early identification of risk and/or symptoms and quarantining those at increased risk. 

This is particularly true for those at increased risk who are well-advised to stay home until the spread is controlled. The message from physicians we work with should, by now, be a familiar one to employers, in three parts: 

  • COVID-19  is very infectious, and if you become infected, you can still spread it even if you haven’t displayed any symptoms of illness. 
  • The most serious threats are not to everyone in the company. We still don’t know how many people exposed to the virus will never become infected or develop more than mild symptoms that may be confused with a cold or flu. The most significant risk is to workers who are older, have chronic diseases or immune systems that are compromised.  
  • Since we’ve never experienced anything like this, employers must pay attention until we have sufficient metrics to determine whether we have over-reacted or under-reacted in efforts to control the spread of this scourge.  

Remember: many of your employees are highly stressed by this crisis; those with children being kept out of schools are bearing additional burdens while working from home. Your job has always been about removing barriers to success. Keep removing them. Watch, listen and learn. As leaders in America, it’s time to step up and do what’s good for our employees, our companies and our com-munities. 

Let’s beat this thing.  

About the author

Jeff Spencer, a 40 Under Forty honoree in 2006, is senior vice president for employee benefits at Holmes Murphy & Associates in Kansas City. 

P  | 816.857.7800

E | jeffspencer@holmesmurphy.com