Evolution in progress

Charles Darwin was born on this day in 1809.  One of the most famous scientists of his day, Darwin’s name is forever connected to his (then controversial) proposals around the evolution of life.  Yet 200 years later and his theory is now widely accepted, and indeed considered a basic foundation of much scientific thinking.

Yet the word evolution has become slightly devalued over the years, and in business is now too often used only to describe the very slow and gradual development of a process.  Yet evolution can also be fast-moving, and indeed the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating exactly how rapidly things can evolve in extreme situations.  For no sooner is a vaccine developed to fight one version of coronavirus than a new variant pops up to confound the scientists again.  It’s the evolution of hunter and hunted being played out for all the world to see in real time.

Workplace policies need to evolve

This changing situation should perhaps also act as a wake-up call to employers to rapidly evolve their thinking – and importantly their workplace policies – to ensure that their organisation is far better placed to withstand any future disruption from the current pandemic.

But it’s also important to accept that COVID-19 may not be the “once in a century” experience that we would all hope it to be.  The reality is that the incidence of infectious diseases appear to be increasing in number rapidly over the last few years.  Since the start of this century alone the world has faced many – very well documented – threats.  Names that most readers will immediately recognise include SARS, Ebola, and swine flu.  The sad reality, as Professor Matthew Baylis said last year, is that;

“this is not the last pandemic we are going to face.”

Yet it doesn’t necessarily follow that future pandemics must always result in the same level of disruption to lives and business that the UK has experienced over the last year.  The truth is that the nation’s collective inexperience in responding to such a threat led to many of the problems, and we now have a clear opportunity to learn from the actual experience of the last 12 months.  This should ensure that employers are far better prepared to tackle the as yet unknown diseases and health threats of the future.

Infection-secure?

At this stage of the crisis most people would accept the need for employer’s to have policies in place to make their workplace “Covid-Secure” for the remainder of the current pandemic.  But far fewer will be considering going a stage further in building a wider “infection-secure” (or at least “infection-resilient”) policy. 

The current Covid-Secure guidelines do of course represent a useful starting point for employer planning here.  The mantra of “hands-face-space” is difficult to argue with, and is likely to be equally compelling in limiting the spread of so many diseases of the future. 

But employers could - and perhaps should - go further.  One of the biggest issues of the current pandemic has been providing financial support for workers to ensure that they self-isolate to avoid spreading infections.  This has been a real issue, and Professor Susan Michie of UCL recently said on Radio 4’s Today program that only 18% of people with symptoms are self-isolating for the full 10 days, and those on the lowest incomes are least likely to comply.  This suggests that employers need to have robust sick-pay support in place to ensure that employees are financially able to stay away from the workplace after exposure to an infectious disease.

Remote access to a doctor for help, diagnosis, and treatment without physically visiting a crowded local surgery is bound to reduce the incidence of spreading and/or contracting infectious diseases too.  Likewise phone and internet access to advice and guidance offered through an employer-sponsored Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) is another useful support tool that has even greater potential as part of an infection-secure policy.  

Employers might also aim to provide some access to private medical treatments for all workers, Group Income Protection policies to provide long-term income support for those unable to work as a result of post-viral conditions, and Group Life cover for all employees too.  All these support measures can be provided cost-effectively within the Employee Benefits tools that are already available to all good 21st Century employers.

The key to a successful policy

Finally – and not least – employers should really focus on the culture of their organisation, and the likely compliance of workers to any new infection-secure guidelines.  This is potentially a big task, but a successful and regular communication policy will be a key component in acceptance and usage of all these tools.

So there is much that employers can do to ready themselves for the potential uncertainties of future infectious diseases, whilst also protecting all their workers (and the employer) from more everyday illnesses and injuries.  It’s really just a question of better evolving the work that so many employers have already undertaken in response to existing health threats and (of course) the current pandemic too.

For more information on any of the above topics, please speak to your usual Howden Consultant in the first instance, or visit our website for other contact options. For the latest details on COVID-19 & Employee Benefits provision please visit our coronavirus hub.

(Published 12/02/21)

Steve Herbert

Steve is Head of Benefits Strategy, Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing, and is an award-winning thought leader on Pensions, Employee Benefits, and Human Resources issues. He is occasionally accused of making Employee Benefits interesting.

Steve Herbert

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