How to Handle the Coronavirus in the Workplace

Flu season is worrisome for employers and employees alike. The 2019-20 season started early, and the vaccine isn’t an ideal match for some strains; children are being particularly impacted by the Influenza B/Victoria Virus.

As a result, your employees likely had a lot on their minds already when cases of the novel Coronavirus were first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. The CDC explains: “This virus probably originally emerged from an animal source but now seems to be spreading from person-to-person.” The rate at which the Coronavirus is spreading is concerning.  As of February 13, 2020, the Washington Post reports: “More than 63,000 confirmed cases and approximately 1,380 deaths have been reported in China since the outbreak began.” According to the CDC, cases of the Coronavirus have been confirmed in nearly 30 countries, and the 15th domestic case is confirmed. 

It can be hard for your employees to put this into perspective, especially during a time when they and their families are getting sick with symptoms similar to those that characterize the Coronavirus. You serve your team well to provide them with the information they need to make good decisions about the health issues that are most concerning to them and their families. Here’s what you need to know to keep your team calm and healthy during this difficult season. 

Get clear and communicate

Meet with your HR partners to discuss policies around sick time and family leave, so that you can advise your employees about exactly when they should call in sick to care for themselves or their family members. To this end, the CDC has prepared recommendations for businesses when it comes to employees’ health and the dangers of transmittable illnesses including the Coronavirus. Review these. Align them with your policies. Discuss them with your HR team. Present them to your staff, giving them the chance to share their concerns and ask their questions. 

Circulating clear and accurate information helps dissolve unnecessary fears and stands to make your employees feel like they’re operating with a plan. It’s also an important opportunity for leadership to promote an empathetic corporate culture by supporting your employees through a worrisome time.  

RESOURCE: The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s Official Coronavirus Site

Create a policy around communicable illness 

While it’s important to ensure that employees meet to discuss a mounting outbreak, it’s also a sound practice to use the opportunity to be proactive. Consider developing a policy to streamline procedures in case of future communicable illness outbreaks.  

Attorneys with Nixon Peabody, for example, created an OSHA alert titled: Employers have responsibilities as Coronavirus exposure and transmission-related fears grow. “A good communicable illness policy should include employee illness reporting obligations, methods employees can use to minimize their exposure and their family members’ exposure to communicable illnesses, reference to employer sick leave policies, procedures for travel restrictions and instructions during an outbreak, rules for when employees should not report to work and when they must not report to work, and the employer’s communication plan in the event of an outbreak” explains attorneys Jeffrey M. Tanenbaum, Rachel L. Conn, Maritza Martin and Benjamin J. Kim

A communicable illness policy becomes your company’s emergency plan in the event of future communicable illness outbreaks. Having such a policy lets your staff know that leadership is doing deep work to ensure employees’ ongoing wellness. 

RELATED: Politics in the Workplace: Do You Need a Policy?  

Coronavirus: What You Need to Know 

Your team will have logistical questions about the Coronavirus and how it spreads. Dr. David Gregg, Chief Medical Officer for workplace wellness organization StayWell, answers these basic questions about the Coronavirus.  

Glassdoor: Are Americans likely to contract the illness at this point? 

Dr. Gregg: The current risk to Americans living and working in the US is very low. . .  the majority of Americans are more at risk of contracting influenza than the Coronavirus.

Glassdoor: What can employees do to stay healthy? 

Dr. Gregg: Regular health practices such as frequent hand washing, limiting exposure to those who are sick, only touch your eyes, nose or mouth with clean hands, and regularly clean surfaces.

Glassdoor: How is Coronavirus distinctive? How is it different than the flue, a cold or allergies?  

Dr. Gregg: The virus is distinctive in that it has a dormancy period of two days before symptoms develop, and then can rapidly worsen into respiratory complications and in serious cases develop into pneumonia. 

Unlike seasonal allergies or a common cold, researchers are still unaware of how the virus began, and there are no specific drugs to treat the spread of the virus. And where influenza can be reduced or prevented through an annual flu shot, there is no vaccine to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.

Glassdoor: What precautions should employers take to keep employees healthy during flu season?

Dr. Gregg: It’s important for employers to re-emphasize the importance of annual flu shots. Flu shots are still available, and if a person is sick, they should stay home from work. By emphasizing rest, medication, and fluids for sick employees, employers can help demonstrate the value of all employees and their contributions to the organization.

Glassdoor: What sources are the most reliable to learn about safe travel during times of global health issues?

Dr. Gregg: The CDC and WHO continue to monitor the virus, its spread, and the care of those confirmed to have the virus. They continue to update information related to safe travel. Additionally, any employee that may be traveling internationally may want to consult with their primary care provider on any necessary health precautions that may be appropriate based on their destination.

Glassdoor: What sources should managers consult to ensure safety if their employees are traveling internationally?

Dr. Gregg: Managers who have employees traveling internationally should consult with their travel partner, and the US State Department provides regular updates for Americans traveling internationally. 

Glassdoor: What else do we need to know? 

Dr. Gregg: Currently, fatalities associated with the Coronavirus have been with individuals who also had weakened immune systems or chronic pre-existing conditions. Given that, it is recommended that all individuals receive a flu shot if they have not already done so. This helps to reduce the risk of complications from a weakened immune system. 

Refine your corporate culture  

While the spread of Coronavirus is worrisome, it also presents an opportunity to clarify your policies and to assure your employees of leadership’s commitment to their wellness. This stands to enhance your culture, making it one where employees feel well-positioned to succeed and to thrive. 

Learn More

The World Health Organization: Coronavirus

Editor’s Note: As with any ongoing health matter, please refer to CDC.gov or WHO.int for up to date information. Glassdoor is not a substitute for official medical resources or advice.