Considerations for Employers as Social Distancing Recommendations Continue

Tom Parry

Nicole Nicksic

A century has passed since a pandemic with the magnitude of COVID-19 has occurred. As of this writing, COVID-19-related deaths in the U.S. are predicted to surpass 100,000 by the beginning of June. After weeks of shelter-in-place mandates and social distancing, state and local governments that have not yet increased testing or seen a decrease in new cases are under pressure to reopen the economy. In fact, most of the 30 states that are reopening or planning to soon actually had an increase in cases over the previous 14 days.

A look into history demonstrates the very importance of social distancing, as minimizing contact was the best way to control the spread of the disease. State and local governments across the country employed different measures during the 1918-1920 Great Influenza pandemic based on strategies used for the contagious disease at the turn of the 20th century, tuberculosis. This included closing non-essential business to staggering opening and closing times to diminish crowds and control the spread of the disease. Despite social distancing measures being implemented after influenza already ravaged their cities, as in the case for Philadelphia and Boston, nationwide promotion of personal hygiene, wearing masks, and using handkerchiefs continued well after the pandemic subsided.

As businesses begin to reopen, it is important to acknowledge that social distancing will be a vital component in containing the spread of COVID-19. However, long-term implementation will also have its own negative health impacts that can be managed with early intervention. An opinion article featured in JAMA outlined the consequences surrounding mental health and well-being (e.g., anxiety, depression, substance use, loneliness, domestic violence, child abuse) that will likely increase with social distancing. Employers can play a key role in circumventing some of the negative effects by adopting the following steps now:

  1. Stay virtually connected with the use of digital technologies and social media. Reduce feelings of isolation or loneliness by using video conferencing for work meetings and socializing with colleagues. To maintain social contact, supervisors should also individually reach out to employees throughout the work week.
  2. Provide managers and employees with resources on what to do if he/she or someone in their household is having issues that are exacerbated by staying at home, especially domestic and child abuse. Ensure Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are in place and employees know how to access them so they can safely report any issues and receive help finding solutions.
  3. Expand the mental health resources using different approaches such as telemedicine, stepped care approach, and building a workplace culture of checking in on others and providing support. Employers should consider increasing benefits to cover telemedicine for medical and mental health appointments if they do not do so already. Remind employees on who to contact when seeking mental health services.

Regardless of when state and local governments allow businesses to reopen, steps also need to be taken to ensure employee safety within businesses. How employees return to work will look different for every business and some solutions may require more drastic measures that take time to plan and resources to execute. Suggested strategies for workplaces include but are not limited to the following:

  • Allowing employees to continue to work from home
  • Using professional sanitation services within office buildings
  • Requiring use of gloves and face masks
  • Increasing physical distance of workers through use of separated stations
  • Limiting travel for essential business only

Additional steps for businesses can be found in CDC’s Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers where recent updates were made on May 6, 2020.