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Beyond Vaccinations: 3 COVID-19 Lessons for Tomorrow’s Workplace

Michelle Gardner, Appian
June 17, 2021

Creating a healthy workplace is not just the right thing to do for employees. It’s also essential to a successful business. 

Healthcare costs associated with employee illness were staggering even before the COVID-19 pandemic. In a recent study, the Integrated Benefits Institute estimated that US employers spent over half a trillion dollars ($575 billion) annually on poor employee health. Out of every dollar companies spent on healthcare, they lost $0.61 due to illness or injury.

Employee health is a complex area with many factors outside an employer’s control. But as we battled a deadly and devastating new virus for over a year, we gained valuable knowledge about how to prevent the spread of disease around a work environment. These lessons apply not only to COVID-19 but to other illnesses, such as influenza, colds, stomach bugs, and even to new conditions that may arise. 

Discover three key lessons companies have learned from COVID-19 that will apply long after the pandemic has ended, with advice from leading medical experts on how to create a safer, more productive workplace on the road ahead. 

Lesson 1: Protective measures reduce other infectious diseases. 

The measures we took to protect people from COVID-19—like masks, additional hand sanitizing, physical distancing, and improved ventilation—can have a positive impact on other diseases. Just look at what happened in 2020 with another common airborne respiratory disease: the flu. 

“Look what we’ve done with flu this year as a country: we’ve eliminated it,” said Dr. James Phillips, MD, FACEP, Section Chief of Disaster and Operational Medicine at George Washington University Hospital’s Department of Emergency Medicine, in a recent whitepaper. According to the CDC, flu activity during the 2020–2021 season has been “unusually low,” with confirmed influenza hospitalizations at a quarter of the rate seen during the 2011–2012 season, which was considered a low-severity year.

“We’ve seen what we can do. We’ve eliminated those 400,000 annual hospitalizations and those 20,000 to 60,000 annual deaths from flu,” Dr. Phillips said. He expects people will use what they’ve learned this year, every year. “Come cold and flu season, it’s going to be mask season. It’s going to be hand-washing season. If these measures become part of our culture, it will have a major impact in our health system.” 

Lesson 2: Coordination and intelligence lead to quick responses.

In early 2020, the response rate to COVID-19 varied between nations, industries, and regions. But by and large, the world reacted quickly. 

Nowhere was the speed of response more pronounced than it was for vaccines. “The fact that we have been able to get vaccinations so quickly is a testament to what we've done in terms of scientific discoveries and also our public health measures that have been in place,” said Dr. Tenagne Haile-Mariam, the Medical Director for George Washington University’s COVID-19 reopening support service. “The science behind the vaccines is extraordinary...and it's beautiful to see the work that's been done and how it's been brought up so quickly."

Organizations have learned important lessons in terms of the speed of response to infectious diseases and our ability to slow the spread. With this, Dr. Phillips predicts that the next time a virus begins to spread, we will react even faster: masks will return, people will start working from home, travel will be restricted almost immediately. 

Lesson 3: Technology is crucial to managing complex health situations. 

In just a few months, COVID-19 accelerated what so many organizations had struggled to do for the past decade—to be agile and adjust quickly to change. 

Technology has played a crucial role in this speed of response and in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Many employers are using workforce safety solutions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and handle incidents as workers return to the workplace. These solutions offer capabilities such as contact tracing, employee health monitoring, vaccination tracking, and facility and visitor management. 

"Employers need more than just a good plan to bring their workforces back safely," writes Forrester in a recent report, Operationalize Your Return-To-Work Strategy: The Technology You Need. "Healthcare technology and services providers are creating a market to support the transition back to work."

Workforce safety technology solutions will continue to play an important role even after the pandemic. For example, Dr. Phillips says COVID-19 will likely require an annual vaccine or booster shot, which will make annual vaccination plans increasingly complex. Employers can use intelligent automation to alert their workforce about vaccine availability each year and remind them to update their vaccination status. 

Workforce safety that extends beyond COVID-19.  

Employers who want to maintain a vibrant and productive workforce must invest wisely in the health of their employees. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced our understanding that workplace interventions—from educational programs to changes in protocols and procedures—can prevent the spread of infectious diseases and have a significant impact on employee health. 

Read Forrester’s take on the various technology offerings that can help you maximize productivity and protect your workforce in their report: Operationalize Your Return-To-Work Strategy: The Technology You Need.