After COVID, keeping employees healthy is the next great challenge for CEOs

July 22, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC
"As businesses look forward, the legacy issues of COVID-19 and the potential of another pandemic must be high on the agenda," writes Arnaud Vaissié of International SOS.
Monica Schipper—Getty Images for Empire State Realty Trust, Inc

The world is scrambling to learn to manage COVID-19—and the business community is no exception. Workforces continue to be at high levels of risk. Organizations are having to keep up with changing COVID protocols, while, ideally, anticipating and preparing for future health issues.

Managing employee health as a key business concern is a major, and vital, change for many corporate leaders. It is core to business resilience. The legal principle of Duty of Care, and the risks of not protecting employees adequately, have come to the fore. The health needs of the workforce will continue to require understanding and input from the C-suite. Just as 9/11 changed the nature of global security, so COVID will have a long-lasting impact on health care management.

Notably, in this crisis, the location of workers is inconsequential. Home or away, office-based or mobile, in retail sites or in manufacturing, across industries—all are at risk of COVID. This fact looms large alongside the associated health concerns and mitigation measures COVID has brought with it. Long COVID, vaccination programs and mental health impacts are just some of the topics now discussed in boardrooms.

The pandemic has exposed the fragmented way employees’ health concerns have been managed in some organizations. Often it is handled across responsibilities, including human resources, HSE, finance, security, risk and operations. But with no overall “owner,” it can be difficult to see the big picture. 

The International SOS Foundation recently conducted a survey of healthcare professionals who work for corporations. Nearly three-quarters of respondents believe their organization’s investment in health will increase over the next 10 years. Almost half anticipate this increase at a level of 25% of more. These are very significant sums. It reinforces the clear conclusion that serious and long-lasting change is anticipated in the way organizations deliver health and wellness.

In response to this growing need, some organizations have created a new role—that of the Chief Health Officer (CHO). This key professional is focused solely on health and medical matters from a strategic perspective. The CHO bridges the gap between the C-suite and the tactical role of occupational health. CHOs draw on medical expertise to design and implement effective strategic health and wellbeing programs. This is alongside robust reporting to the board. Executing well in this role requires] a data-driven approach, a firm grasp of global health, and an understanding of best practices in delivering effective health programs.

The growth of the CHO role also leads to the need for consolidated collaboration. Bringing in expertise across other professional segments with an interest in health is essential. Business functions must work together, eradicating duplication, to support the most efficient model. 

There are some significant benefits that the CHO can bring. Having a dedicated expert on high-level medical issues can take some of the burden off management time. They can address the current focus on COVID-19 and future planning needs. For instance: How should companies deal with the predicted increase in cardiovascular disease in their workforce in coming years? What role might the company play in bringing down malaria around their manufacturing plants? The scale of the pandemic, coupled with continuously changing regulations and advice, has put many professionals under strain. They have been unable to focus on the wider picture. A CHO can focus solely on these top-tier health concerns.

Our survey has shown that being able to draw on professional expertise is vital. Ensuring that health care best practice is being applied, while ignoring “fake news,” is clearly critical. But we also need to acknowledge that it is normal for employees to have concerns and questions. We are now in a situation where many companies need, or want, to implement vaccination programs. For multinational organizations, monitoring and supporting such programs across multiple jurisdictions is a major undertaking. We know the impact that effective internal heath communication can have on vaccine confidence. Managing the complex supply chain and logistical challenges of vaccine rollouts in some countries is a substantial commitment. The complex questions around how to treat employees who are privy to different public health entitlements needs to be fully evaluated. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

And this isn’t just for COVID-19. Flu was at a low last season. Flu vaccinations helped, in part, to separate flu from COVID and protect healthcare systems. The restrictions in movement limited transmission. This year, employers should be considering flu vaccination programs now in order to be able to successfully roll them out for the next flu season. In an increasing number of countries, companies can be supported to roll out COVID vaccination programs when possible, if they so wish.

Such plans are an integral part of the workplace preparations as employees return. Employee safety is essential in the sustainable return to work and operations. As we have seen, this is not necessarily a one-time activity. It requires agility to respond to the fluctuating conditions of the pandemic, to address the anxieties many workers are now facing when returning to face-to-face work. 

Depending on organizational maturity, CHOs can create, drive or tweak plans for returning to work safely. They can help instil confidence in employees, showing that the return is managed with employee health as a priority. Considerations such as on-site testing and the potential to use verifiable health certification, such as the ICC AOKpass, should be investigated. As domestic and international movement returns, bringing new complexities, there is also the need to do a similar risk assessment for travel.

In these stressful times, the role of the CHO can also be invaluable in mental health support. The need for companies to focus on mental health support has been acutely felt by many during the pandemic. According to our Risk Outlook 2021, one in three risk professionals predicted mental health to be a primary productivity disruptor this year. Left unmanaged, this could have serious financial and continuity repercussions. 

Of course, in addition there is the planning for future medical crises. As many of our clients have experienced, those with business continuity embedded in their culture, combined with robust and flexible approaches to pandemic planning, have been in the best position for recovery. CHOs can provide valuable medical expertise and understanding of potential large-scale medical issues. The key to success? Ensure that the CHO is strategically involved in all elements of activity that can impact employee health and wellbeing. 

As businesses look forward, the legacy issues of COVID-19 and the potential of another pandemic must be high on the agenda. Looking after employee health has a cost, but effective health programs will cost less than the business impact of unpreparedness.

Arnaud Vaissié is the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of International SOS.

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