David Teo, regional medical director, Asia, International SOS, address how transitioning from pandemic to endemic requires a shift in how organisations view and manage workforce health and safety, as businesses gradually reopen with a virus that is here for the longhaul.
Last month, Singaporeâ€™s authorities announced a change in the national strategy to managing the Covid-19 pandemic: the Covid-19 virus is showing strong signs of becoming endemic, and we must learn to live with it.
In a state of endemicity, Covid-19 is expected to become much like the common flu â€“ a virus that is ever-present, but with a very low case fatality rate. However, this largely depends on a strong vaccination uptake, which would help to slow down the spread of the disease and lower mortality rates.
As new variants emerge, an â€śEndemic Modelâ€ť approach would allow the economy, business activities, and borders to open up even as Covid-19 persists.
The shift towards an â€śEndemic Modelâ€ť approach would require three parties to work together â€“ the government, which sets the strategy and regulation; businesses, which provide workplace policy; and the community, which is dependent on individual behaviour.
As businesses transition from pandemic to endemic, a paradigm shift in how workforce health and safety is viewed and managed is critical â€“ and preparation is paramount in building a resilient and empowered workforce.
Transitioning from reactive to proactive
For the better part of this pandemic, businesses have adopted a reactive approach to managing workplace health and safety â€“ which involved constant adapting to changing government guidelines and regulations.
Moving towards an endemic Covid-19 scenario will require proactive strategies to safeguard the entire workforce â€“ be it on-site workers, remote staff or the travelling workforce. This means early planning of processes and policies for various scenarios.
In the months to come, a potential workplace occurrence is that of workers informing their employers of their possible exposure to Covid-19, and being admitted to community care facilities, or staying at home with a Medical Leave for 10 to 14 days.
Employers will need to be flexible with more frequent requests to self-isolate at home, while making provisions to ensure their operations remain business-as-usual. The authorities may also gradually allow more employees to return to on-site work depending on the percentage of the workforce vaccinated.
Close contacts who are vaccinated may not need to self-isolate, but can instead self-monitor with their own Antigen Rapid Test (ART) kits at home.
Safeguarding the travelling workforce
For some organisations, corporate travel retains an indispensable role in business continuity. As countriesâ€™ vaccination rates and Covid-19 risk levels differ, organisations should align travel policies with prevailing rules and regulations in destination locations, such as testing and quarantine requirements.
The policies would need to create safe â€śbubblesâ€ť for business travellers throughout their trip. Creating â€śbubblesâ€ť, keeping their travelling employees well-informed of the measures, and providing 24/7 support and assistance will help them to navigate the uncertainties abroad with a greater peace of mind.
It is important to bear in mind that differences in travel requirements between vaccinated and non-vaccinated travellers may arise; where the vaccinated may have shorter quarantine periods than the non-vaccinated. Airlines may also push for policies that favour or encourage travellers to get vaccinated before flying.
A roadmap anchored on education and support
The business roadmap for reopening needs to be crafted with flexibility and empathy â€“ with business and HR leaders responsible for providing communication, reassurance and guidance to employees on the changes in workplace processes and policies.
Internal awareness sessions that leverage verified information from experts are important in helping employees understand that an endemic Covid-19 is not a bad situation, nor is it a step backwards from the past 18 months of efforts to eradicate the virus. Instead, employees need to understand that Covid-19 has to be handled collectively to keep the workplace safe for all.
Lastly, as businesses make this transition, they should be mindful of the impact on their employeesâ€™ mental well-being as people adjust differently to the endemic norm. Channels for care should be available; this can involve Employee Assistance programmes which include telehealth programmes and access to mental health professionals or wellness providers. Businesses can also develop mental resilience training programmes for managers and peers to know how to support one another.
Doing our part to live safely with Covid-19
Ultimately, living with an endemic Covid-19 depends on our collective behaviour and actions. Doing our part to practise good personal hygiene and self-isolate when necessary will go a long way in reducing transmission, preventing outbreaks, and minimising business disruptions.
At the same time, when leaders demonstrate care and empathy for the workforce, especially during this transition, it becomes a pivotal opportunity to instil stronger team camaraderie and confidence in the organisationâ€™s response to Covid-19 moving forward.
David Teo is the regional medical director, Asia, at International SOS.
In this role, he oversees International SOS’ 24/7 Assistance Centres across Asia, as well as conducts medical training, medical audits, and evaluation of on-site medical capabilities.
An occupational health specialist registered with Singapore Ministry of Health, Teo possesses experience in medical incident management and develops medical response plans for many organisations ranging from corporates to scholastic institutions.
Prior to joining International SOS, he was working in the Singapore Armed Forces as a military doctor focusing on Disaster and Mass Casualties, and HAZMAT response.