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How Employers Should Respond to the Omicron Surge

published8 months ago
5 min read

Chances are you know someone who has already had COVID-19, is dealing with it now, or will contract it in the near future. I know many of us hoped that the Delta variant would be the end of the pandemic, but Omicron, while milder by most accounts, is also far more transmissible.

Employers are already feeling the effects of this new variant, which currently accounts for 95% of new U.S. cases. First, people are taking many more sick days — if they even have enough sick leave to use — and these absences are creating severe staffing shortages. United Airlines reported that nearly one third of its workforce called out sick on one day alone at the Newark Airport. Grocery chain MOM's Organic Market said that some of its stores have had to deal with 15 out of 50 workers out on a single day.

Other costs are much harder to measure. These include lower morale among employees who have to shoulder the burden of sick workers, along with the constant stress of worrying if they will catch COVID-19. In fact, pandemic-induced stress and disruption can make even healthy people feel unwell and absent-minded. So don’t be surprised if all of your workers are less productive than usual right now.

Two years into the pandemic, I know most of us are genuinely fatigued from having to deal with it. Still, I believe that now it’s more important than ever to develop a resilience plan that will help see your company through these trying times.

Some aspects to consider are practical. Should you delay reopening your offices? How should you cope with an influx of workers calling out sick? What are the new CDC guidelines, and how might they impact your business?

Other aspects of coping with the Omicron surge are psychological. What steps can you take to protect your healthy workers? How can you provide yourself and your employees with a measure of psychological equilibrium as a much-needed emotional buffer?

Although the approach will vary depending on your business, your location, and the number of employees at your company, here are some broad ways you can adjust to the current reality.

Remind yourself that it’s not forever

Adopt an attitude of forbearance. Tell yourself, “this too, will pass.” Omicron has impacted different sections of the country and the world at different rates. While we haven’t fully turned the corner yet, cases are leveling off in at least 12 states in the U.S.

Depending on your location, your company could experience a spike in employee absences in the next month or two, and then your teams could be perfectly healthy after that. This is (hopefully!) a short-term problem. Still, it requires intelligent solutions as well as the ability to nimbly respond to any future variants.

Reconsider your return-to-office plans

A few months ago, some companies were eyeing early 2022 for a return to the office. But Omicron has forced many businesses to revise their plans, at least for now. Companies like Goldman Sachs, Chevron, and CNN have either delayed or changed their January return-to-office plans.

If you’re still planning to reopen your workplace, consider a hybrid approach or use staggered schedules to avoid having too many people in the office at once. And keep an eye on your local infection rates, since the risk of workplace infection is correlated with the community infection rate.

Stay vigilant about keeping workers safe

There was a growing sense of optimism in the fall, with many places dropping their masking requirements, travel picking up again, and some offices reopening. But almost overnight, Omicron has taken us back to square one. That means that employers again have the responsibility to act swiftly and responsibly to help mitigate the risk of infection.

Remind your employees to remain physically distanced from each other and to wear their masks properly. Put a zero tolerance policy in place for this if necessary. And if you haven’t already done so, create a modified workplace layout that supports physical distancing (e.g., desks spaced apart, one-way traffic in hallways, and fewer employees allowed in conference rooms).

Create teams who can cover for each other

Depending on the nature of your business, you may want to consider creating teams of two or more who can cover for each other. Perhaps the “A” member of the team goes to the office on Mondays and Wednesdays while the “B” member goes in on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If the “A” member is out sick, then the “B” member will cover for him, and vice versa.

And this isn’t just about having employees cover each other’s shifts. It’s a good idea to encourage your workers to pass on key information about their role and responsibilities to at least one other person on their team. That way, if they need to call out sick there will be a seamless transfer to others who can pick things up right where they left off.

Stay on top of new guidelines

Preliminary data shows Omicron is up to three times more infectious than the Delta variant. The silver lining: Omicron has a shorter incubation period than Delta. As such, the CDC has updated its guidelines with shorter isolation periods for mildly ill and asymptomatic individuals and quarantine periods of 5 days when a person is most infectious.

It’s critical that you continue to check these guidelines for new masking requirements, testing recommendations, and additional precautions after leaving isolation. And more importantly, you need to keep your workers informed. Remember, they’re looking to you for clarity — so rather than just directing them to the guidelines, be prepared to interpret them and help employees understand how the CDC’s advice will translate to your workplace.

Continue to support workers’ mental health

There’s no question that COVID-19 has challenged our collective sanity more than ever. The number of adults reporting symptoms of depression or anxiety increased from 11% in 2019 to an alarming 41.5% in early 2021. Right now, that number stands at around 31%.

Many organizations have made immense strides in supporting the mental health of their workforce, and it’s critical that this support continues. This means offering mental health benefits like free or subsidized therapy, and encouraging practices that align with self-care (e.g., taking micro breaks). It also means promoting a culture of wellness at work, where managers and leaders model the right behaviors for their team members.

Don’t force employees to work while sick

As difficult as it may be, this is not the time to be a stickler about the number of sick days an employee takes. If your people feel like they will be penalized for taking off and instead they go into work when they’re not feeling well, then prepare yourself for a complete shut-down when all of your workers end up getting sick.

The better approach is to adapt your business operations if possible. Consider shortening your operating hours if you’re understaffed, as Macy’s and the Smithsonian National Zoo recently did. Or you could reallocate staff to align with customer demand. For example, Advocate Aurora Health of Wisconsin temporarily closed three urgent care centers and moved staff to busier locations.

Take care of your team members, and they’ll be there for you

LinkedIn’s new Global Talent Trends Report drives home the fact that employees want to work for those who value their physical and emotional well-being. While the Omicron variant creates numerous challenges, it also gives you an opportunity to align your company’s values more closely with your workers’ values — an excellent retention strategy during the Great Resignation.

But transparency will be key, so be specific about your plans to address health and safety, staffing shortages, and office reopening plans. Provide workers with detailed timelines when possible. This clarity can offer structure, predictability, and routine when many are feeling stressed and out-of-control. And by creating a resilience plan that is transparent and clearly prioritizes your employees’ well-being, you have the opportunity to lead with compassion.

How has your company been affected by Omicron? Do you have any success strategies you can share? Let me know in the comments on LinkedIn!