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A practical guide to employee communication during COVID-19

How employers can offer support amidst a global pandemic

Health and Benefits|Talent|Integrated Wellbeing
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Lindsay Stortz | March 18, 2020

Now more than ever, employees are looking for health and wellbeing support from their employer. Be there for your people when it matters most.

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About our COVID-19 coverage

In our ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak, experts from across Willis Towers Watson share insight into what you need to know to manage your business and employees and reduce your risk.

As COVID-19 (coronavirus) spreads exponentially across the globe and throughout the United States, employees are yearning for information. They’re living with uncertainty. Employers need to be agile and responsive. Communication just became significantly more important.

Beyond communicating about work-from-home and travel guidelines, employers are providing details about their benefits and wellbeing programs. Any tools and resources to support employees and their families so they can be physically, emotionally and financially healthy as well as socially connected are essential right now. Communicating about benefits reminds employees of the “need to know” information such as what resources are available and where to turn for help. There’s an opportunity to build trust with employees, too.

So how can you get started, or expand what you’re already doing? Top benefits and wellbeing programs to communicate right now include:

  • Medical plan coverage, including COVID-19 testing being covered at 100%

    While not yet currently required (as of publication date), plan sponsors of self-insured group plans may voluntarily decide to cover COVID-19 testing on a first dollar basis. If you are offering first-dollar coverage for testing, clearly communicate with your workforce so they have reassurance in the event they or a covered family member are ill and need to be tested.

    Beyond testing, this is a good time to remind employees of their medical benefits, and how to find information and access these benefits.

  • Telehealth/telemedicine coverage or discounts

    Telehealth, also known as telemedicine, offers individuals nationwide access to a doctor licensed in their state who can speak with them and diagnose many conditions via video chat or telephone. In addition, telehealth often comes with a lower cost than a traditional doctor’s office or urgent care visit. When an employee’s medical situation is not urgent, telehealth is a convenient way to help reduce individual risk and allow access to care from home, without having to set foot in a doctor’s office. And if the employee isn’t sure if their situation is appropriate for telehealth, the initial screening questions will help direct if they should schedule an in-person visit with their physician.

    Telehealth is especially helpful in reducing the spread of COVID-19 as people seeking treatment for other conditions can reduce exposure by avoiding a visit to a medical facility.

    Employers can use this time to build understanding and promote usage of their telehealth benefits. Many employers or their medical insurance carriers offer telehealth programs as a reduced or no cost.

  • Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and other emotional wellbeing programs

    Whether or not an employee or family member is sick, COVID-19 is creating widespread anxiety and confusion. Many employers offer mental health resources, and now is the time to continue to communicate the availability and support available through an EAP or other emotional wellbeing program like telebehavioral health services. EAPs offer 24/7 access to qualified resources who can help employees and family members, and can help these individuals access local qualified resources for mental health or substance abuse needs. Virtual sessions with a licensed therapist through telebehavioral health services may also be available through your telehealth provider.

  • Prevention tips on how to stay healthy

    As you communicate about the benefits available, also remember to educate employees about the importance of hand washing, social distancing, preparing for the unexpected, and more. Employers can share what they are doing to support employee safety, and direct employees to reputable resources such as the  World Health Organization (WHO) or the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

  • Financial wellbeing tools and resources

    Recent financial market volatility, with significant declines, also may increase employee anxiety. Employees with a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k), may require some messaging – for example, reinforcing that retirement savings is a long-term strategy over a career; or, reminding of other programs that offer income protection. Consider promoting any financial wellbeing programs or resources available to employees.

As an employer, this is an important time to help your leaders and managers engage employees socially as well. “Social distancing” doesn’t mean being socially distant. With many employees working from home, managers can take action to schedule weekly check-ins with their direct reports, including virtual/video coffee or lunch chats. If a team would have gathered together in a conference room, the same team might consider a virtual chat while listening to a meeting or call, so employees can engage with each other and share sentiments. These are just a few ideas for continuing to connect in this new environment.

How are employers communicating?

Employers are using traditional and non-traditional methods to reach employees about COVID-19. With many employees working from home, the most common methods of communicating include: 

  • Call center training and Q&As – helping employee-facing call centers respond to employee questions effectively. 
  • Text messages – keeping employees informed about emerging or urgent matters (new guidelines, policies, etc.). 
  • Email – grabbing attention with images and graphics, emails should provide metrics about the number of employees they are engaging.  
  • Real-time updates on microsites and portals – offering information broadly to employees and families through a public microsite is becoming increasingly common. Similarly, providing targeted and personalized messaging for employees (based on their location and other factors) via a portal is a leading practice.  
  • Digital signage, banners or web ads on intranets – capturing attention of employees to convey the latest company updates about COVID-19.

Finally, many employers are considering how to communicate with employees about potential COVID-19 exposures in the workplace. Employers are actively working to avoid such exposures, though appropriate closures, decreasing or eliminating visitors and travel, and excluding sick or at-risk employees. However, as this pandemic spreads, many will face these exposures. 

Employers can earn the trust of their employees through timely and accurate communication about such exposures when or if they occur, including accurately expressing any uncertainty.
Those who are exposed can take quick action to decrease any risk to their families and coworkers, and it will be difficult to regain employer trust if employees feel that the initial communication was inappropriately delayed.

This is the time to communicate regularly and often. Your employees will appreciate the information and support. 

Author

Senior Director, Talent & Rewards

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