As employers begin planning for the return of their nonessential workforces to worksites in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, a recent Mercer survey found some significant challenges they may face. 

These organizations can learn a great deal from the experiences of employers of essential workers who have remained at their worksites throughout the pandemic. Most notably, nearly half (45%) of responding employers with essential workers have had issues with employees not coming to work because they are afraid of getting sick. Not surprisingly, this problem is more widespread in industries like retail/wholesale (84%), manufacturing (64%), and health care (57%), where the risk of exposure is higher. 

“The fact that so many employers have reported issues with employees not coming to worksites due to fear of becoming ill underscores that the first priority is to develop a comprehensive plan to keep employees safe at work,” said Dr. David Zieg, Mercer’s clinical services leader. “The second priority is to clearly communicate this plan to employees so as to allay their fears.” 

The most important safety consideration, by far, is to maintain adequate distancing. While nearly all employers of essential workers have made changes to ensure employees keep the proper distance from co-workers and customers, nearly 1 in 3 (30%) say they have had problems doing so. There is no single distancing solution that will work in all situations, so employers will need a plan that best suits their specific workplace and staffing needs. 

Overcoming the physical distancing challenge may also mean fewer employees in a worksite at a given time.

According to Mercer’s survey, 63% of respondents planning for return to worksites are considering “staggered returns” with measures such as having employees whose last names start with A-M working on certain days and N-Z working other days. Other employers (44%) say they will create smaller work groups in order to limit the mixing of employees and groups in the workplace at the same time.

While 43% of respondents with essential workers say they have conducted COVID-19 screenings and assessments on-site, only about one-third (35%) of the respondents planning for return to work say they will conduct COVID-19 screening and assessments on-site, most commonly with temperature screenings (26%) and by administering a symptom questionnaire (20%). 

Although antibody testing is receiving heightened attention, just 4% of all respondents say they are planning to conduct serology screening for antibodies. This low percentage may reflect concerns about the reliability of the tests as well as the fact that much is still unknown about immunity to COVID-19. Just 3% say they will screen for the presence of the virus.

Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents (63%) planning for the return to the workplace say they will provide employees with masks. However, based on the experience of employers with essential workers, this could be challenging; more than one-third (37%) of respondents with essential workers reported that they have had difficulty finding enough masks to purchase. 

“To be an effective strategy, everyone in a worksite needs to wear a mask to ensure that any person carrying the virus without being aware of it is wearing one. That’s why it’s concerning that employers report difficulties in purchasing masks for their essential workers,” said Zieg. 

While 38% say employees will continue to work virtually in the short-term and return to on-site working when deemed safe, only 8% say they will continue to allow most employees to continue to work virtually as much as possible, regardless of social distancing rules. Even among respondents in high-tech companies, where virtual work was relatively common before the pandemic, only 14% say they would support long-term virtual working for all employees.

“For many employers, leading with empathy will mean accepting that not all employees will be ready to return to the worksite once it opens,” said Susan Haberman, senior partner and U.S. career leader for Mercer. “They should communicate to employees the steps they have taken to ensure their safety, but also acknowledge their apprehension, whether it is about safety, family obligations or other legitimate concerns.

“To learn more about Mercer’s COVID-19 survey, including results from other countries and specific U.S. industries, visit the survey website.