In January 2020 the World Health Organization determined that the novel coronavirus that became known as COVID-19 was a public health emergency, months before declaring it to be a pandemic. Earlier this month, they announced that COVID-19 no longer qualifies as a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). This does not mean that COVID-19 has disappeared, or that it no longer causes health problems. Nations, organisations and individuals should continue to be vigilant to reduce the impacts of COVID-19.
High levels of immunity in the population due to vaccination and/or infection, along with improved clinical management of cases have contributed to reducing the number of COVID-19 related deaths and hospitalisations globally. Nevertheless, the virus continues to circulate, capable of causing significant outbreaks and issues beyond the acute illness.
Mental health has been affected across the world, with increases in depression and anxiety, particularly in younger people. Although the risk of developing long COVID appears to be decreasing, millions are still affected. Estimates suggest that about one-fifth of people with long COVID have not returned to work a year after infection. The challenge for business leaders remains in being prepared for more waves of infection, and continuing to support employees with physical and mental health problems.
The Mental Health Challenge
COVID-19 highlighted the importance of mental health. While addressing mental health challenges has been part of organisations’ health and wellbeing strategy for quite some time, the engagement of key stakeholders has been accelerated by the pandemic.
Organisations need to develop sophisticated mental health strategies to not only fulfil their Duty of Care responsibilities but also to support their global workforce in remaining healthy and resilient. Providing and encouraging access to emotional support is essential.
An appropriate Employee Assistance Programme should provide people with a route to confidentially discuss their emotional health issues, away from their direct managers and teams. This could be with Human Resources Departments, or through independent experts via counselling support services.
Managing Long COVID Amongst the Workforce
In their updated Global Strategic Preparedness, Readiness and Response Plan, the World Health Organization advises nations to restore and enhance their health systems while integrating methods to manage COVID-19 in the long term, including the post-COVID condition (also known as long COVID).
Long COVID is also a significant long-term challenge for employers. Organisations need to consider how long COVID can impact employees’ productivity and business continuity in order to effectively manage return-to-work.
Employers should focus their efforts in three key areas to have impact:
Alignment of HR policies – Long COVID can necessitate long absenteeism. Hence long absenteeism needs to be covered in HR policies with clear directions for such situations. Employers must remain informed about the latest local legal regulations ensure they are compliant. Policies will need regular review and adaptation to reflect the latest evolvements. Consulting services can help identify and adapt current policies in place in consideration of challenges long COVID presents.
Education and communication – Make sure the workforce knows about long COVID, not only symptoms but how to manage the condition and work with the company to plan return to work. This can be done by engaging external medical experts to craft communications or run awareness webinars.
Practical support for employees - Access to quality care for the management of long COVID is part of an employer’s Duty of Care. Health professionals’ understanding of this condition is continuing to evolve. The emerging consensus is that multidisciplinary care provides the best results in improving symptoms and successful re-integration to the workplace.
How International SOS Can Help
International SOS has almost 40 years’ experience in managing crisis and pandemics and has supported many organisations to prepare themselves for the unknown. Our 24/7 Global Assistance Centres, combined with our global network of accredited providers, enables access to the best possible expertise.
In 2022, organisations turned to our health and security expertise to further support their employees’ health, safety, and wellbeing as they returned to the office. We continued our efforts in monitoring the developments of the virus and proactively communicate news of new variants and changes in travel restrictions, among other things, to our clients. We provided organisations with up-to-date information via several avenues such as webinars, insightful articles, education material as well as podcasts. Our global health and security experts also continue to advise our clients on developing enhanced health and safety policies and procedures that are is adapted to the current risk climate. During the pandemic, we also established dedicated medical facilities for our clients.
Our health and security experts are on hand to guide organisations in assessing the risks impacting their workforce and integrating these into their existing risk mitigation strategy to ensure business continuity.