Treating Every Employee Like an Essential Worker

By: | November 10, 2020

John R. Anderson, DO, FACOEM, is the executive vice president and chief medical officer at Concentra, one of the nation’s largest providers of occupational health care. He oversees the overall delivery of care for more than 2,000 clinicians nationwide. He also oversees the clinical analytics and quality aspects of the company’s medical practice, ensuring Concentra’s value-based medicine standards and early intervention model for rapid, sustainable recovery are consistently practiced. He can be reached at [email protected]

As a physician overseeing other health care professionals, I have a somewhat unique perspective and level of respect for all frontline workers who face significant personal risks each workday during the pandemic.

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This includes not only physicians, nurses, EMTs, and other allied health care workers, but also grocery store and food service workers, municipal workers, police, fire, pharmacy, and a long list of other workers who perform their roles and demonstrate a selfless, unyielding commitment to the communities they serve and the organizations they represent.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the term “essential worker” was popularized as a way to classify select employees who were called to work while others were directed to stay home.

Now that companies have taken preventive measures to mitigate the risk of workplace exposure to COVID-19, more employees have returned to the workplace, and that includes employees who are not classified as “essential workers.”

Aren’t All Employees Essential?

Despite my understanding of the reference to essential workers, I wonder how other employees feel when they hear the term – that is, those employees who are not labeled as essential workers.

Would it be unfair for them to ask, “Aren’t all employees essential?” By no means is the intent of this question to downplay the courageous, outstanding work our essential workers continue to provide. The question is rhetorical, no doubt, but it should heighten the awareness of every company’s leadership.

The answer should be obvious for every employer, but think about your business. Would the evidence support a claim that your company treats every employee like an essential worker?

A Company’s Role

Let’s consider your company’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. How effectively has your business managed the risk of workplace exposure to the virus? With widespread surges in coronavirus cases, now is the time to revisit and reinforce your workplace infection control measures. Consider the following recommendations:

1) Maintain accurate and timely knowledge about local, state, and national guidelines.

Restrictions are subject to change with irregularity; organizations must adapt to those changes and inform their workforces of any changes in infection control practices. For guidance, stay abreast of the guidelines established by your local and state health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

2) Offer workforce health resources that protect or improve employees’ health status.

A health care tool that has become widely accepted is telemedicine. Virtual health is no longer viewed as a short-term remedy to the care access problem that arose in the early days of the pandemic, and more employers are realizing that telemedicine can serve an even greater purpose both within their group health plan and also for injured employees – eliminating visits to healthcare facilities when not absolutely necessary.

From an occupational health perspective, benefits of telemedicine and telerehab include reductions in employee and supervisor time away from work and better medical case closure. Some telemedicine platforms offer 24/7 care access – a true value to companies that operate around the clock. And because telemedicine allows employees with minor work conditions to be treated on site, productivity losses can be kept to a minimum.

3) Don’t just have a plan to prevent workplace exposure to COVID-19. Put it into action.

The use of face coverings and the concept of social distancing effectively mitigate the spread of coronavirus, which is why it’s of supreme importance that employers maintain and monitor workplace compliance.

Everyone is suffering from pandemic fatigue, and as we enter the holiday season, people may become less vigilant about taking precautions. Organizations must stay the course and continue to follow basic preventive practices.

Continue to require the use of face coverings, implement daily temperature and wellness checks, place hand sanitizer dispensers in work areas, and create an environment where employees can maintain a distance of at least six feet.

Encourage your employees to resist the urge to become relaxed in their efforts and to adhere to established, proven preventive health measures both at work and at home. As for company leadership, leading by example in this environment is critical to the success of your safety efforts.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” –Benjamin Franklin

Pfizer’s recent news of a vaccine candidate against COVID-19 is encouraging, but even after vaccines have been approved and made available to the public, they will not replace the need for preventive measures.

It wouldn’t be prudent to trust a vaccine to eliminate your risk of illness. Nor would it be wise to assume that a vaccine will end the pandemic; it won’t.

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Remember that a vaccine’s purpose is to provide a level of immunity that protects you from contracting an illness or from suffering severely in the event you do contract one. Taking preventive measures can be just as effective as taking a vaccine, and with no potential side effects; therefore, following preventive health guidelines at work or anywhere is the ongoing key to reducing exposure risks.

Your Workforce is your Company’s Most Valuable Asset

Essential workers who serve on the front lines during the pandemic should continue to be admired for their hard work and dedication.

They are essential to the wellbeing – and often, the survival – of our citizens. Your workforce is your company’s most valuable asset.

Let’s treat all employees like essential workers, as they are essential to the wellbeing – and perhaps, the survival – of our businesses. &

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