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Essential COVID-normal measures for every manager and leader

After a prolonged hibernation, Australia and New Zealand have begun the process of emerging from lockdowns and border closures. As we gradually re-open and return to familiar routines[1], there are new health responsibilities for managers and leaders in every industry and sector­. The way these responsibilities are handled could have a dramatic impact on the bottom line.

Before the pandemic, every organisation had measures to support the health and safety of their people. Now and in future, with COVID-19 circulating in the community, employers have a whole raft of new expectations and requirements, including (but not limited to) vaccination policies. Organisations that handle these effectively will achieve operational upsides, competitive advantages, and strategic benefits.

All the indicators point to a high churn of employees in 2022[2]. Organisations that prioritise employee welfare and safety[3] will make themselves employers of choice for existing talent and potential new recruits. Furthermore, they may also be preferred destinations for customers and suppliers.

To maintain the wellbeing of their people in a COVID-normal world, astute managers and leaders are already shifting their thinking. They understand that employers will become increasingly involved in local and national COVID-19 responses[4] including contact tracing, rapid antigen testing, vaccinations, and mental health support. In this article, we explore some of the most pressing issues and actions for managers and leaders. While every organisation is unique, these considerations apply (to differing degrees) for most employers.

Employers will play a part in COVID-19 vaccines

Proactive leaders are preparing for the broader complexities of successfully and rapidly vaccinating the remainder of their workforces[5], and making plans to help facilitate a vaccine booster program[6]. The business benefits of doing so include protecting staff, minimising uncertainty, enabling productivity, and ensuring business continuity.

Organisations in all industries are asking themselves due diligence questions about the pros and cons of mandating vaccines[7] (including any potential consequences for employees who refuse, and WHS considerations if unvaccinated workers attend the workplace or deal directly with customers and suppliers).

Whatever vaccination policy your organisation decides upon, there will be action required, including clearly communicating this to staff and proactively preparing for any potential workplace relations issues arising from the policy. And every manager needs to understand what, if any, incentives the organisation offers for staff (e.g. paid leave or travel costs for offsite vaccinations).

Most organisations that your people interact with will have vaccine policies of their own, so it’s important that leaders work with partners, suppliers and clients to understand how their approaches might impact your operations. (For example, if your business mandates vaccines for employees, but you have a supplier who does not, you need to consider the health and business conditions/risks of permitting your supplier’s staff to visit your premises.)

At PwC Australia, we have been advising many of our clients on their approach to vaccination in the workplace. Often these programs involve selecting a health provider to administer onsite vaccinations[8] across an organisation’s various geographic locations. If your organisation is considering such a program, there are a variety of associated issues to consider, including but not limited to:

  • Data: What data system will you use to book/track/report vaccine take-up (including factoring in privacy laws and employees’ rights regarding vaccine disclosures)?
  • Timing: How will your vaccine program integrate with your operations (e.g. workforce contingency/continuity plans if staff experience post-vaccine symptoms)?
  • Efficiency: How will you minimise vaccine wastage (e.g. having employees on standby)?
  • Prioritisation: Which staff will have priority for vaccine jabs, including boosters (e.g. frontline workers, older workers, vulnerable workers, etc)?
  • Risk: How will you mitigate risk in the event of adverse events from administering vaccines on your premises?
  • Scale: What policies might you introduce for extending your vaccine program to contractors, or clients, or employees’ families?

COVID-19 prevention measures for managers and leaders

Besides vaccinations, employers will need a COVID-19 safe plan, with policies and processes for other prevention measures including mask-wearing, ventilation, deep cleaning, social distancing, and contract tracing, in line with evolving government and medical recommendations.

One important consideration is: In what circumstances and settings will COVID-19 testing be required – and what will the process be for that? For example, rapid antigen testing is commonly used by employers in the US and Canada for priority occupations, unvaccinated workers, venue entry, transport, targeted hotspots, etc).

Australia’s Register of Therapeutic Goods has approved a list of tests[9], which require a qualified Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency practitioner to oversee the testing and interpretation of results. And some of New Zealand’s largest businesses have already placed orders[10] for approved rapid antigen tests for their workforces.

Whatever testing protocols your organisation decides upon, it’s important to consider how your testing regime and results will be digitised, reported and shared with health authorities. The simpler and faster you can do this, the better it will be for the community (and indeed your own operational efficiencies).

Many organisations that we work with have prepared action plans and/or playbooks so that they and their people are clear about how to respond if (more likely when) colleagues are diagnosed with COVID-19 (e.g. how will decisions be made about isolating employees who are close contacts of infected colleagues?).

On a related matter, leaders need to set and communicate policies regarding staff absences and sick leave (e.g. what should employees do when experiencing cold or flu-like symptoms? How will the organisation support COVID-positive staff and those experiencing ‘long COVID’?). We also recommend that risk mitigation planning is undertaken to prepare for any absences from work and potential workers compensation claims.

Managing the mental health impacts of the pandemic

For those leaders who have shut offices or other premises in recent months, a big task will be enabling a smooth transition back to workplaces. This will come with a series of challenges in terms of the physical safety and mental health of employees[11].

To be effective, employers will need mental health and wellbeing strategies that provide an ecosystem of self-directed support resources and survey tools to look at all facets of wellbeing with benchmarking, support and evidence-based digital tools.

Having had staff working remotely for lengthy spells, one priority will be rebuilding social connections that have loosened. This includes supporting recent recruits who may never have worked on-premises with colleagues before, as well as wellness guidance and support for employees who have switched to remote/hybrid working arrangements[12] (e.g. agreeing clear boundaries to ensure employees’ flexible arrangements are maintained, coaching managers to support the mental health of remote colleagues, etc). 

There’s also the added challenge of providing support for any employees experiencing anxiety about returning to the workplace[13]. One step towards this is providing managers with the tools[14] to support staff who experience anxiety, depression, etc including measuring the take-up of such tools to inform improvements in future (crucially, wellbeing support should be available 24/7, because demand typically arises ‘out of hours’). Another important step is to ensure your organisation has clear reporting mechanisms so that staff feel safe and confident raising concerns about the mental wellness of themselves or colleagues.

Furthermore, there are equity and inclusion issues to consider. For example, until vaccines are approved for school-aged children, COVID cases in schools may be commonplace, forcing parents to manage sudden isolation and homeschooling requirements. To ensure such public health measures can be met, parents (particularly women, who disproportionately fulfil carer roles) will need employers to flex.

At a macro level, managers and leaders can monitor workforce wellbeing through a combination of lead indicators (e.g. leadership, culture, connectedness, policy, capability, etc) and lag indicators (e.g. psychological injury claims, absenteeism, incidence of depression, stress scores, etc). This data should be combined (e.g. via a dashboard report) to present a complete picture for leaders.

For managers and leaders, scenario planning is vital

With more and more teams and colleagues returning to workplaces, it’s human nature to wish for a return to exactly the way things were. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. For managers and leaders, this means preparing for a variety of possible scenarios in 2022.

At PwC Australia, we conducted in-depth scenario analyses (informed by developments and experiences in nations such as the UK, Ireland, Singapore, Denmark and Norway) to consider the full spectrum of how Australia could look over the next three years.

We explored the absolute best-case circumstances (i.e. high vaccine coverage and sustained efficacy leads to dwindling case numbers/hospitalisations and – against all odds –  virus elimination).

We also took an unflinching look at worst-case circumstances (e.g. the virus mutates to evade the vaccine’s immune response, causing severe, widespread outbreaks that aggressively affect people of all ages, including children). And between those two extremes, we’ve looked along the spectrum of possible circumstances that Australia could encounter, where COVID-19 is an endemic threat to manage.

In all the various scenarios we analysed, it was clear that ‘COVID-normal’ will impact every organisation in every industry and sector. Leaders should therefore consider how such different scenarios might affect their organisations and employees in 2022. And all of the issues we’ve explored in this article can be considered in your contingency plans.

Further guidance for managers and leaders

The Australian Federal Government has published a guide for employers[15] on reducing the risks of COVID-19. New Zealand’s Ministry of Health has also published guidelines for businesses and services[16].

A note of gratitude

In compiling this article, we have drawn upon our experiences working alongside truly inspirational leaders in the health sector. In the past two years, we’ve witnessed the extraordinary level of expertise and care among these leaders and their teams. Their individual and collective efforts – in often difficult circumstances – deserve our deep gratitude. On behalf of PwC Australia, we sincerely thank them. And we invite all managers and leaders (in every sector) to do all they can to combat the ongoing pandemic and, in doing so, alleviate the pressures on our health sector.

Nathan Schlesinger is the National Health & Wellbeing Leader at PwC Australia. He and his colleagues are available to talk with boards and executive teams about the strategic and operational issues raised in this article.


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