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November 8, 2022

Survey: COVID-19 Continues to Impact Employers

Stephen Massey

As the United States continues to experience an unusually high and early uptick in flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections, public health officials warn that a "tripledemic" this winter could overwhelm hospitals and strain a healthcare system still recovering from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the nation's employers are “still feeling the effects” of COVID-19, according to a recent survey from Mercer:

  • 1 in 3 large employers (500+ employees) say COVID-related absences remain an issue for their organization.
  • 1 in 7 is impacted by leaves of absence due to long COVID, while 1 in 8 report productivity losses from the condition.
  • As a result of long COVID, 26% of employers said short-term disability leaves increased this year compared to last year. Only 18% said they had decreased, while 56% said they were about the same.
  • With COVID-19 still impacting operations, companies with vaccine requirements are keeping them in place. Currently, 32% of companies report having a vaccine requirement, down slightly from last year (34%). 

We sat down with Tracy Watts, a Senior Partner at Mercer and a member of our Business Advisory Council, to talk more about the survey and ways companies should respond.

Q: Heading into 2023, what should companies be doing in response to COVID-19?

A: Continue to encourage employees to get vaccinations and flu shots.
In our latest survey, about two-thirds of employers say they actively encourage employees to get vaccinations, most commonly through communications from leadership (39%), directing employees to vaccination sites (28%) or even administering vaccinations onsite (26%). It’s important that leadership continue to reinforce worker safety and a safe environment for customers. And revisit PTO policies. COVID has stress-tested employer PTO programs, leading many to review and update their policies. As organizations adapt to “live with COVID,” PTO policies will need to evolve to meet employee needs and ensure a safe workplace. 

Q: Modest numbers of companies report long COVID being a challenge. Do you expect that to rise? What advice do you have for employers?

Long COVID is tricky. Some long COVID symptoms are annoying and frustrating — like prolonged loss of taste or smell — but likely do not prohibit an employee from working. Other symptoms are more serious and debilitating, and employers should account for these cases/instances.

In a recent study, 42% of people reported only partial recovery 6 to 18 months after COVID infection, and 6% said they had not recovered in that time. When symptoms linger for such extended periods of time, long COVID cases can accumulate even as the overall number of COVID infections declines. The best advice is to track the trends in your own population and pay attention to how well your benefits support impacted employees.

Q: Companies that required COVID-19 vaccination are maintaining this requirement despite a tight labor market. What message should other employers take away from that?

Companies have multiple stakeholders: workers, customers and business partners. A safe business environment is important to everyone. A range of factors will influence whether an employer chooses to require vaccination as part of their safety protocols. In earlier surveys, we found that most employers that required vaccinations did not see significant turnover as a result.

Even though inflation is top of mind for employees, companies need to emphasize worker personal health, mental well-being and safety.

Our latest data from the Inside Employee Minds survey collected in Aug./Sept. 2022 from 4,049 workers found employee priorities are (in order): covering monthly expenses, being able to retire, workload/work-life balance, physical health and fitness, and mental and emotional health. Doing the best you can to support workers across all these dimensions will go a long way to show you care and hopefully lead to the holy grail of an employment relationship: loyalty.