While the US may be out of the pandemic phase, the country is still currently in the midst of another Covid surge. Hospitalizations and deaths remain low, but have been ticking steadily and significantly upward in recent weeks.
With workplace mask and vaccine mandates largely a thing of the past—and many workplaces now doubling down on return-to-office mandates following Labor Day—we reached out to Susan Peters, a research scientist at Harvard’s Center for Work, Health, and Wellbeing, for insight into how employers should be thinking about Covid right now. Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
What might an effective workplace education campaign around Covid safety look like now?
We all know that handwashing is important. We’re all fairly comfortable taking Covid tests if we have symptoms now. It’s more communicating to your workforce about the policies and programs and practices that are in place to support them. For example: ‘We’re seeing an uptick in cases. It could be that your child is going to come home from school sick, or you are unwell. We encourage you to take a Covid test to see if it’s Covid, but regardless, if you’re sick, you probably shouldn’t be at work. We want you to recover and bring your best self to work. These are the policies in place to support you: You can take sick time off, you can convert your work over into remote work if you’re an office worker, but these are the caveats around it. You need to tell us when you’re doing that. This is the process for putting that in place.’
Most employers who had vaccine mandates have dropped them by now. How do you see workplaces addressing worker vaccination during this latest wave, if at all?
Whether we go back to mandates, who knows? I don’t have a crystal ball, and vaccine mandates are not something that I have looked at a lot in my research… [But] I think there has to be an educational component about why a certain vaccine, whether it’s the flu vaccine, Covid, whatever it might be, is important. A lot of the time it’s like, ‘Well, my family doesn’t want me to get it.’ So if you provide them with education about why it could be important for both their health and the health of their families, then they can make a decision.
Some of the issues that we saw were when people were told that they needed to get a vaccine without any information, or conflicting information. It becomes really hard. You’re getting mixed messages. You don’t know whether you should be doing what A says or what B says. So you can provide education about that sort of stuff, but it needs to be provided in a way that people are going to receive well.
What do you make of this uptick in Covid cases now coinciding with an uptick in return-to-office mandates?
If they’re forcing people back to these spaces and they’re not really thinking about how people are working together, if they have poor air quality, if they’re expecting them to catch public transport where they’re probably going to catch it, are they going to see an uptick in the office? Probably, and that’s going to be impactful in itself. Is it going to be a productive workforce if everyone’s sick, either at work or at home? There needs to be a conversation around, how do we do this? And if we can’t do it in a way that’s actually going to be beneficial for the worker and the organization, then should we be doing it?
What else should workplaces be thinking about or prioritizing right now in terms of Covid?
Talking to their workers. It’s been a little while since we’ve had an uptick as big as this, but what worked really well last time? What were we missing? What did we not do so well? And how can we start to build that into what we’re doing now? What are people’s comfort levels? We are learning to live with Covid. It’s not going to go away. And so how do we put in place those processes so that workers feel supported, so it’s not just management coming in saying, ‘You know what, this is what’s going to happen’ and workers are like, ‘That doesn’t really work for me’? You need to have your workers involved in those decisions that you’re making.
Also reminding people, ‘If you do have concerns or there’s something that we missed, we want to hear from you and this is the mechanism for you to do that. We’ll take whatever you say really seriously and we’ll pull that information together to see how we can improve our policies, programs, and practices to support you better.’ I don’t think this is just a Covid problem. I think this is, how do we manage your health? If you need a mental-health day, how do you manage it? Burnout is at an all-time high. There are so many other health things that we’re struggling with at the moment, and Covid is just one of them. And so make sure that workers know what they can do, what’s available to them if they’re struggling with managing things. Who do they talk to? Is there an EAP [employee assistance program] for that? Whatever it might be, just knowing that there’s a process in place.
Read our interviews with Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the Pandemic Center at Brown School of Public Health, on the end of vaccine mandates, and with Joseph Allen, associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and the author of Healthy Buildings, on making offices healthier for workers.