Viewpoint: Returning Employees May Need Accommodations and Support

The pandemic has taken a toll on workers' physical and emotional health

By Dan Jolivet August 12, 2020
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Worried-loooking woman on phone at work, surrounded by employees wearing masks.

As worksites reopen, returning employees may require new accommodations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it's important that employers not overlook the need to identify and address employee work capacities, limitations and restrictions.

There are at least three groups of employees who are likely to need new accommodations:

  • Employees who were not infected, but who have other diagnoses that place them at high risk for COVID-19 may require accommodations to minimize infection risk. This includes people who are immunocompromised, who are over age 65 or who have pre-existing conditions such as lung conditions (including asthma), heart issues, severe obesity, diabetes, kidney disease requiring dialysis or liver disease. Rigorous safety measures, including protective gear, strict social distancing and continued telecommuting may be necessary accommodations. Employers should review and comply with all applicable state and/or federal guidelines and mandates.
    A subset of these employees includes those who are caregivers for vulnerable populations or young children.
  • Employees who were not infected and are not at increased risk for infection, but who have developed behavioral conditions. The available evidence suggests that behavioral health conditions have increased substantially since the emergence of COVID-19:

• Data on medication use indicate significant increases in prescriptions for anxiety, depression and sleep disturbances.

• The federal Disaster Distress Helpline saw an 891 percent increase in March over 2019 levels, and other mental health and suicide prevention hotlines have also reported dramatic increases in call volume.

• Alcohol sales increased 55 percent in March when compared to sales in 2019, leading to concerns about potential increases in alcohol use disorders and drinking while working from home.

Some of these employees may self-identify to their employers prior to returning to work, yet it is incumbent on employers to proactively recognize employees who are struggling and to take action to help them access the appropriate accommodations, even if they are not legally required to do so.

Reminding workers of their employer-sponsored benefits, especially employee assistance programs (EAPs) and wellness resources, may help to mitigate the increased levels of stress employees are dealing with today.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Employee Assistance Programs]

Those who are helped to return to work after a disability leave are frequently more loyal and dedicated to their employer. We'll likely see the same with employees who felt supported by their companies throughout the pandemic and as they return to work.

Dan Jolivet is a workplace possibilities practice consultant at The Standard, an insurance and financial services firm. These recommendations should not be considered as legal advice. Employers should consult with legal counsel and their HR professionals for specific questions.

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Return to Work


Related SHRM Articles:

Wellness Programs Step Up as Worksites Reopen, SHRM Online, July 2020

Support Health and Well-Being for a Successful Return to Work, SHRM Online, June 2020

How to Manage the Mental Health of Returning Employees, SHRM Online, May 2020

Mental Health Apps Offer New Ways to Support EmployeesSHRM Online, May 2020

Underused EAPs Are a Missed Opportunity to Help Workers, SHRM Online, August 2019



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