Workplace Public Health: A New Imperative For HR

Well whether you like it or not, the COVID crisis continues. In May of this year, 88% of Americans thought they’d be back to work in December. Now, as the second wave sweeps across the United States, we realize we’re going to be fighting this virus for some time to come. And our job is not just to make the workplace safe, but also to Flatten the Curve.

Figure: History of Coronavirus Outbreak, go to this link to view the animation.

And we see this in our conversations with HR leaders every day. Our Big Reset Groups, a set of 400+ HR leaders who meet weekly, are all making plans for the New Workplace. Companies are developing new safety protocols, mental resilience programs, adjusting pay for people working remotely, and developing many “human-centric” leadership strategies to adapt.


Some Background On Public Health

The field of Public Health was defined by Charles Winslow as “the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private communities, and individuals.” 

Our companies and related customers are “communities,” so in many ways Public Health practices are a perfect fit as we work to make our companies healthy, productive, and safe. And this is why we chose to build a program in this area: Public Health practices are vitally important as we recover from the Pandemic.

If you read about the history of Pandemics, it’s predictable that we are not through this yet. Consider the following from Apollo’s Arrow, Nicholas Christakis’ amazing new book.

The Coronavirus crisis, which is new and novel to many of us, is really just a very special example of something we’ve been dealing with for generations. SARS and MERS, which were far more deadly but less contagious, could have been as damaging as Coronavirus. So we, as HR professionals, have to realize that this Pandemic is not a “one-time” event. We will be living with the challenge of infections for years and years into the future. 

Nicholas Christakis, the author of Apollos’ Arrow, points out that the 1918 Flu virus had a second wave that was four times as deadly as the first. And that it took almost four years for people to “forget” what happened and go back to a normal life. And life permanently changed: spitoons, for example, were outlawed. (Listen to Nick’s podcast, it’s worth a listen.)

In my mind this means something important: we, as HR and business leaders, have to learn about Public Health and we have to now consider this a core capability in HR. Yes, many companies have public health officers – but as you’ll see in our new JBA program, these issues impact almost every part of daily life at work.

The Integration of Science, Economics, Culture, and Work

As I’ve studied Public Health this year, I’ve become more and more fascinated by how inter-disciplinary it is. The impact of the pandemic is expansive: trust, culture, wellbeing, and the economy are all connected. In fact the more I think about the problem, the more I realize we have to take a systemic approach. This is not just about building a “safe workplace” – it’s about building an organization that can respond, adapt, protect, and learn. And as the WHO describes it, Public Health is not merely the absence of disease: it’s a resource for everyday living.

For those of us in HR, Public Health crosses with all our efforts to improve the Employee Experience. Just as we look at employee wellbeing, culture, and productivity in the company, Public Health professionals look at similar issues across populations, cities, and society. And topics like education (skills and capabilities), mental health (resilience), occupational safety, and social well-being all fall into the area of Public Health.

Suppose your company has a Coronavirus outbreak, and it starts to spread. The Public Health discipline would not only look at how to respond, but would look at all the contributing factors that led to this problem. Were people not wearing masks? Where they sitting too close together? Did someone bring the virus in from home? And maybe people were ignoring protocols because they were tired? Not informed? Or perhaps not able or willing to comply? This is more than a problem of design thinking or safety: Public Health professionals look at the company as a “society,” and what can be done to make the “society” healthy.

Many public health leaders also talk about Humility. When a new strain of virus appears, nobody really knows what it will do. So this means experts have to be humble, so they listen to new data, understand how the enemy is changing, and constantly innovate where needed. In business we often call this Curiosity – right now I challenge you to “turn up your curiosity dial” on Public Health.

If you read about Pandemics in the past, you see that they don’t just “end.” They “transform.” People’s lifestyles, expectations, and fears are shaped. So as much as I hope we have a strong recovery next year, I’m becoming more convinced every day that the Pandemic may take a few years to work through. So your workplace and public health strategies should be built to last: the vaccine will not magically make all these problems go away.

Will The Vaccine Make The Pandemic Go Away? Not Alone.

Do you believe we can just wait for the vaccine and then we go back to work? Well I believe you’re probably wrong. Public Health experts know that it takes time for the vaccine to be administered, and during that period there are lots of infections to occur. 

If you look at the history of vaccines, you see that it is almost always non-pharmaceutical interventions that work. These are the individual and collective behaviors: hand-washing, physical distancing, mask-wearing, and staying home from school. Look at the chart from Apollo’s Arrow: in almost every case the vaccine came late in the cycle. We may see it earlier this time, but the research shows that behavior change is what matters.

Focus On Culture And Citizenship

So to finalize my point, let me point out that Public Health is not about protecting you – it’s about protecting others. And this means creating a Workplace Public Health policies that drive collective thinking. So we find ourselves back to the core of what we do in HR: drive culture, leadership, and collaboration.

Think about the work we do to create collective thinking, teamwork, knowledge sharing, and collaboration at work. There must be 1,000 books on these topics, and they come up in every leadership strategy. Well the Pandemic is shining a bright light on these issues. Because Public Health is all about people protecting each other.

Why are the mask debates so infuriating to watch? Because it’s not about individual freedom at all – it’s a debate about being a good citizen. When you put on a mask, you’re protecting others. And this whole spirit of “giving back” is core to your public health strategy. And in companies, as many studies have shown, collective cultures outperform individual cultures again and again.

Thinking about your culture? The Competing Values Framework, pioneered by Cameron and Quinn, is something to think about here. This model, which is one of the most valuable I have ever used, explains why “command and control” cultures perform under some conditions, and “market cultures” perform in other cases. In the case of the Pandemic, Public Health teaches us that collective thinking is critical.

And collective thinking (what I call Citizenship) is what younger workers are seeking in their lives.

Deloitte’s latest Millennial study, which surveyed more than 18,000 professionals under the age of 45 (74% of the global workforce), found that Citizenship is on the rise. 78% of these professionals believe the pandemic has taught them to be more sympathetic and helpful to their community. I think you can tap into this in your own safe workplace strategy: protect yourself, your peers, and your customers.

Public Health Is Not About Protecting You. It’s About Protecting Others.

Introducing The JBA Program On Public Health

Well in our theme of creating Business Resilience, today we are introducing a brand new Josh Bersin Academy Program: Workplace Public Health, developed in partnership with Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. This program, designed for HR professionals and leaders, will bring you up to speed on all the Public Health issues you need to understand for your workplace.

Workplace Public Health: Policy Design, Implementation, and Execution

The course is focused on action. The program will introduce you to case studies, step you through policy design, educate you on safety and prevention policies, and then enable you to share your policy ideas with others. Through our collaborative learning design, you will learn how to build, improve, and implement your company’s policies.

You will learn about contact tracing, how to deal with an outbreak, and most important of all, how to appoint a public health officer in your company.

Seven Considerations To Address

As we continue to study this area, we’ve identified seven topics to address.

First, you must create a cross-functional team, and this team should take this course. Workplace Health involves IT, HR, Facilities, Health and Safety, Legal, and Finance. You will deal with issues like temperature testing, location tracking, overtime pay policies, and the scheduling of office time, desks, and equipment. Companies are providing car service to prevent people from taking public transportation; even tracking meetings to help with contact tracing.

Second, you have to build policies using a “swiss cheese” prevention strategy. In Public Health, protection is based on layers. Each layer (ie. Personal Protective Equipment, Social Distancing, Attestation, etc.) has flaws, just like holes in Swiss Cheese. But like layers of Swiss Cheese in a sandwich, if you layer three or four pieces, almost all the holes get covered. So companies like S&P Global, L’Oreal, Pizza Hut, and others implement multi-layer strategies.

Third, you need digital tools for scheduling, PPE inventory management, employee self-reporting, travel safety and scheduling, office design and layout, employee training, and scheduling of desks, offices, and equipment. At Uber, office badge readers will not let someone enter if they do not self-attest or temperature test. Companies monitor attendance by floor and won’t let you enter a crowded area. And these tools must connect to time and attendance systems, HR systems, travel systems, and other internal applications.

Fourth, you must train and support managers, supervisors, and employees. Is it ok to “not come in” for meetings? What if my child is sick? What are my remedies if I get sick in the office? How close can I get to people? What can I touch? The list goes on and on. And this means a continuous focus on wellbeing, mental health, resilience, and listening.

Let me remind you that the Pandemic is impacting people in a very personal way. Not being able to see family at Thanksgiving, for example, creates a sense of loss. We have to make the workplace a supportive place, so people feel energized and productive at work.

Fifth, it’s time to create contingency plans for outbreaks. In one client, the CEO came into the office for a meeting with a consultant and got sick. The company quickly realized they needed better policies and procedures. You need an outbreak plan. And this includes your own form of contact tracing.

Sixth, you need real-time monitoring. If the virus or an individual gets sick, and he or she is on a plane and visits a certain location, someone needs to know what’s going on. Tata Consulting Services has built a Safe Workplace Dashboard for their clients: it’s a great example of something every company needs.

Finally, you need to create a culture of health and safety. Some companies, Dow, for example, consider Safety as their #1 core value. (Dow has a Safety Academy in fact.) These companies reinforce safe behavior and accident prevention above all else. At Exxon, where I worked in the 1970s, there was a rule against skipping stairs! This, and the mandatory “safety minute” before each meeting, helped us remember that safety was always #1. As these companies know well, health and safety is dependent on behavior (washing hands, wearing masks, distancing, staying home when ill), and behavior is impacted by culture.

Join Us On The Journey

We are committed to helping the global HR community build solutions to this crisis, so I encourage you to join the Josh Bersin Academy. The Workplace Public Health program starts on December 2, so sign up now and you’ll be joining thousands of your peers to learn, share, and innovate together. 

(The entire Academy, including all our programs, resources, and community of nearly 20,000 HR professionals, is only $250 per year – and team and enterprise discounts are available.)

Come join us today – we are here to learn together.

Other Resources On Safe Workplace, Public Health, and Resilience

The Big Reset Playbook: What’s Working Now, Josh Bersin Academy

The Remote Work Bootcamp, Josh Bersin Academy

Resilient HR, Josh Bersin Academy, developed in partnership with Accenture

Voice, Values, and HR, Josh Bersin Academy

Business Resilience: The Best Practices in Pandemic Response, Josh Bersin Academy