Look What’s Back: COVID-19 at Work

A new variant has created concerns.  How should leaders respond?

It’s probably something that most leaders never wanted to hear about ever again. But COVID, it seems, has other ideas.

As of the beginning of September, the country was averaging about 4,300 COVID-related hospital admissions each day, up 24% from earlier in the summer. The surge, stemming from a highly mutated, particularly contagious version of the original COVID-19, comes just as many organizations have begun stricter enforcement of their return-to-office plans.

This time, instead of broad mask mandates, mandatory vaccinations, and office closings, companies are saying the onus will be on individual sick employees either to wear a mask at work or stay home entirely. “It’s getting largely like flu cases,” says Brian Bloom, Korn Ferry’s vice president of global benefits and mobility operations.

But to make that policy work, experts say, leaders must communicate it effectively to the workforce. That means telling employees who aren’t feeling well that it’s OK to call in sick. Bloom says schools don’t expect or want kids suffering with a fever at school, and organizations shouldn't expect or want sick employees at the office.

That might run counter to the instinctive reaction of many managers at this point, says Brad Frank, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Global Technology practice. It’s been more than three years since COVID-19 first disrupted corporate America, and most people getting it now experience comparatively minor symptoms. Many managers are also tired of their employees working remotely, which they feel has depressed productivity. “The first reaction may be, ‘Get back to work,’” Frank says. “But you’ve got to remember to be empathetic, and tell people to get rest.”

Companies are mostly staying out of the vaccination debate. About 70% of Americans got the original COVID-19 vaccine, but only 17% got the most updated vaccine released last year. Earlier this month, the US government recommended that everyone age six months and older get an updated vaccine. The federal government will no longer cover the cost, although most insurance plans and Medicare will. There are more than 20 million uninsured non-elderly adults. Out of pocket, the vaccine likely will cost around $120 per shot, and a combination of public and private partnerships are trying to make sure that no one who wants one but can’t afford it is turned away.

The situation is a reminder, experts say, that while COVID might have faded as a front-of-mind issue, it’s likely never going away completely. “It’s gone from being a pandemic to being endemic,” Bloom says.


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