By Tamara Parker, CEO of Mercer South Africa
With several vaccines approved, the new year started with a significant dose of optimism. Yet, it is already clear that 2021 will not be a walk in the park. For now, The South African government is taking the primary role in vaccine deployment but companies will need to prepare as new information emerges. Companies will need to think strategically about the implications for business operations. And the imperative to be a responsible employer requires companies to think hard about how to support vaccination plans.
There are seven priorities that employers should consider now vaccines are here.
- Prepare the employer’s role now
Companies in South Africa should consider creating a committee to develop the company’s vaccination strategy and to understand the business issues likely to arise. For example, will you support employees in getting the vaccine? And if so, how – by offering paid time off for vaccinations or paid sick leave to recover from any side effects, for example? How will you respond to colleagues in a people-facing role who don’t wish to take a vaccine? A vaccination committee would likely include representatives from HR, risk management, legal and communications departments.
A global study released by Mercer showed that almost half of all companies in Europe, the Middle East and Africa will offer additional time-off to get the vaccine. However, over 80 % of companies feel that employees must use sick leave days to recover from the vaccine’s possible side effects.
- Prioritize health education.
The employer’s role in communicating and educating employees about their health and safety cannot be underestimated. Employers should be responsible for issuing reliable information. According to the Mercer survey over 60% of employers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa will encourage employees to receive the vaccine.
- Define your critical workforce.
Just as countries are prioritising vaccine deployment for certain population segments, companies can clarify which segments of their flexible, blended workforce need to get the vaccine first. Defining the company’s critical or essential workforce is where HR can play a key role to ensure business resilience and success.
- Focus on health equity.
Access is a key consideration. Healthy, younger workers will be low on the priority list. What does this mean for business resilience if the majority of your workforce fall into this category? And what about those without insurance, such as gig workers?
Affordability is another question to consider, and prepare for, now. If the vaccine is not covered by health insurance or through the public health system, employers may need to step in to pay for it fully, partially, or not at all. How does your health plan and insurance need to evolve to protect your people and their families?
- Think about privacy.
Depending on the strategy, employers may need to track and monitor which employees have completed the vaccination process and ensure personal data protections are in place. Responsible employers will make a difference by taking the lead and innovating in the way they protect their workforce and their communities.
- Consider the un-vaccinated.
The Mercer study showed that 64.44 % of employers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa are not considering mandating the vaccine to comply with employment, labour, and human rights legislation. Not all employees will want – or be able – to receive a vaccine for medical or personal reasons, raising thorny questions for the business and employment, labour and human rights issues where the law varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For instance, will vaccination be required for business travel or for certain types of work.
- Ensuring other precautions remain in place will be vital for everyone’s safety, such as wearing masks, social distancing and temperature screening employees.
- Accommodating employee needs and preferences will require companies to implement flexibility.
- Put mental health on the agenda.
COVID-19 is taking its toll on mental health and emotional wellbeing worldwide. Securing the workforce’s mental health will require employers to deploy a range of strategies and tools to empower workers to take better care of themselves and seek support. And certain populations may feel the strain more than others. Mitigating people risks in the current system will require companies to deploy creative ideas to support working parents during the caregiver crisis, and to explore sabbaticals and rest periods.
Given the complexity of rolling out a mass vaccination program, the spread of new coronavirus strains, and renewed movement restrictions, 2021’s prospects are already looking as uncertain as those of 2020. As South Africa prepares the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccination, companies have an important role to educate and inform their employees about the vaccine, and address concerns about the vaccine’s efficacy. Companies have a responsibility, as part of their wellness programmes, to ensure their staff understand their choices regarding the vaccine. Ultimately, companies want a healthy workforce, and also some want a return to normalcy with staff returning to their worksites.