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How to Support Employees with High-Risk Concerns During a COVID-19 Outbreak

A man is using a tablet while sitting in front of a television.

​As the news changes daily around COVID-19, one fact remains clear: Those with chronic health conditions are more susceptible to the virus, and they may have more severe symptoms and a more difficult recovery, too.

Other terms to describe people more vulnerable to the virus may be used, such as people with "underlying conditions"; people who are "immunosuppressed" or "immunocompromised"; and people with "autoimmune issues," which includes anyone who may have heart disease, lung disease, cancer, diabetes or asthma, as well as those who take medications that treat lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis and Crohn's disease.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Employees who fall into these categories may seek additional advice about how to perform their job duties during the coronavirus pandemic. Those who serve as caregivers or live in a household with someone who has an immune deficiency disorder may also show greater concern and request flexibility. Since many people with these disorders may not show physical symptoms, employees may not "look sick," and their employers and managers may not know much—if anything—about their condition.

When conversations arise about COVID-19 concerns, HR professionals and managers can support their high-risk employees in three ways:

1. Allow flexibility when possible.

Be open to requests from employees for accommodations such as telecommuting and working from home if that is an option. A willingness to listen and discuss concerns is key.

"Every individual may have a different degree of concern regarding the virus, and we don't all [show] why our concern might be greater or less," said Elaine Farndale, acting director of Pennsylvania State University School of Labor and Employment Relations.

"Importantly, it should be made clear to all employees that this is a nonjudgmental situation. If someone needs changes to their work setup or location, this should be respected," she said. "Providing reassurance that all is being done that can be done, this week and next, when we don't know how long this situation might continue, is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to manage the uncertainty."

Employees may be sensitive about sharing details about their condition, especially with others who may not know about their medical status. They may request additional assurance that employers and HR staff will maintain confidentiality about their personal health details.

"It is important that immunocompromised employees who are at additional risk from exposure to the COVID-19 virus feel supported by their employer, who understands their concerns," said Dr. Nick van Terheyden, founder and CEO of Incremental Healthcare in Gaithersburg, Md.

"HR should help their staff understand that the employer is aware of this elevated risk and supports the employee in taking additional precautions to help limit their chances of being infected and acquiring the disease."

2. Limit exposure at work.

Some workplaces won't be able to accommodate telecommuting options, and, in those cases, employers should ensure the workplace takes extra steps to keep everyone safe.

"If they absolutely have to come to work, and I fully realize in some jobs it may be necessary, everyone and every space they're in contact with needs to take recommended precautions," said Jennifer Trivedi of the University of Delaware Disaster Research Center. Trivedi researches disaster vulnerability, response, recovery, resilience and decision-making.

"If the immunocompromised employees are the only ones taking those steps, it won't work," she noted. "They need everyone on board."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends these transmission-reduction strategies for workplaces:

  • Encourage good hygiene and hand-washing practices.
  • Practice social distancing by advising employees to interact while six feet apart.
  • Regularly clean and sanitize all spaces, especially high-touch areas such as doorknobs and phones.
  • Separate sick employees and send them home.

3. Stay up-to-date on the latest recommendations.

As researchers learn more about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease known as COVID-19, they're publishing new papers in journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet. The latest articles discuss new research on quarantines, community transmission and possible treatments. Since there are so many different types of autoimmune conditions, most experts recommend that patients speak with their doctors about their particular condition.

"The importance here is to prevent infection in the first place" for immunocompromised individuals, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. It recommends social distancing, 20-second hand-washing practices and continuing medications for underlying health conditions.

HR staff can also turn to these resources for reliable information and updates:


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