COVID-19: HR's role in managing the 'next wave' of infections

A second wave is expected to be a major disruptor in the business world — are leaders ready?

COVID-19: HR's role in managing the 'next wave' of infections

Are leaders prepared to manage the next wave of the pandemic?

Almost one in two global HR leaders are ‘very’ concerned about a second wave of coronavirus cases, according to HRD’s latest COVID-19 survey.

Nearly two in five are ‘extremely’ concerned — and rightly so. The pandemic is far from over and there is still no readily available vaccine in the market.

And while there have been constant warnings by economists the world over about the oncoming devastating and deep recession, leaders may still be uncertain about how to inspire confidence in employees and successfully navigate a second or third wave of infections.

The fear is not unfounded as we witness an aggressive new wave of infections in Hong Kong and Australia. Just when life was slowly easing into a ‘new normal’, with people dining in limited groups in restaurants and planning a swift return to offices, entire cities were forced to return to lockdown mode to contain the spread.

READ MORE: How will a second wave affect business recovery?

Business continuity planning
A second wave is bound to lead to a spike in stress levels once again — but without a known vaccine, should this be expected? What can HR do to help individuals manage the next wave of the pandemic?

Dawn Yeow, regional HR director, Asia at International SOS believes we should expect and prepare for it accordingly. If anything, building resilience must be part of our ‘new necessary’.

“We expect countries to transition in and out of lockdown as and when necessary to contain the transmission of COVID-19 within the community,” Yeow told HRD.

“[As] governments [use the method] to manage the threats and risks of the virus to maintain ‘business as usual’, companies too must adopt a nimble approach to ensure continuity of business operations.”

She recommended regularly updating the organisation's business continuity plans to help ease worries and reassure employees and leadership during these turbulent times.

“It is important for HR leaders to rethink the entire concept of a business continuity plan not only as an add-on to business operations, but also as an integral function of the overall business model,” she said.

“Rather than just a one-time-only solution, a plan that is sustainable, scalable and flexible will help businesses and employees to better adapt to the changing severity of any health or security threats, especially as some employees in organisations start to return to office or resume essential business travel.”

HR should also educate employees on the need to be flexible and embrace change, and be ready to take on new skills and roles to adapt to business needs. This includes the ability to cope with accelerated changes in tech adoption, a necessity for companies to remain operational through the pandemic.

READ MORE: Workplace audits highlight liabilities in wake of COVID-19

Mental health awareness
Besides staying agile when dealing with the constant changes in the way we work, managing mental health must be a ‘a key pillar’ in any leader’s plans or strategies for the second wave.

While we saw a deterioration of our mental wellness in the first wave, Yeow warned that the prolonged impact of the pandemic will likely “cause a higher degree of stress and anxiety on employees”.

“HR leaders should look to inspire a positive workplace culture implementing the necessary support structures for employees who might be struggling during these transitions,” she said.

This could include proactively encouraging employees to practise self-care, and sharing initiatives that can support anyone who needs it.

“In fostering an encouraging and motivating environment during this time, employees will feel empowered to adjust their mindsets to respond to these new changes,” she said.

READ MORE: How to safeguard mental health in a prolonged crisis

Human-centred leadership
Yeow explained that this is why HR’s role is so critical during the pandemic — at the end of the day, whether you’re attending to the economic or public health crisis, it affects people.

So while leaders remain focused on adapting their business models to protect the financial health of the company during the devastating recession, “it is our job to remind them to consider the human element behind these changes”.

She shared small steps HR can take to build a positive and resilient workplace culture:

  • Ensure employees have access to verified information and timely advice on the evolving COVID-19 situation. This can help to minimise anxiety.
  • Leverage digital tools to foster regular and meaningful dialogues with employees, such as webinars on building mental resilience, as well as virtual social activities to connect and destress together.
  • Encourage managers to check in regularly with employees, show appreciation, and offer assistance whenever needed.
  • Provide emotional support and counselling services anytime, anywhere through employee assistance programs.

READ MORE: Why its crucial to be a resilient leader

“At the start of 2020, none of us could have imagined a global pandemic of such scale would impact our lives in so many ways, and will continue to in the coming months and years,” Yeow said.

“We should be cognisant of the new reality and how it continues to challenge and transform previous practices.

“In keeping focused on guiding principles of building a resilient workforce, we will be able to take the right steps to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone in the workplace.

“Of course, as we address varying concerns across all levels in the organisation, from employees to management leaders, we should also remember to check in with ourselves, make time for rest, and set healthy goals not just for our companies, but ourselves as well.”

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