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The next normal

Instead of focusing on a return to “business as usual,” employers should consider how the workforce must change for good

After months of getting up-to-speed about covid-19, social distancing and remote working, business leaders still have a lot to consider—from operational changes to workplace culture—in order to make the workplace transition as seamless as possible. But in order to set their organization up for success, they’ll need to have a plan in place that starts with one important aspect: the needs of employees.

A return to the office in a post-pandemic world may not—and should not—look the same as it did before. What is clear is that the previous “normal” no longer applies. Organizations must use this time as an opportunity to adapt to the changing landscape and bolster employee support by creating a company that is more equipped to handle the mental and physical health of their employees—collective or individual.

Without new guidelines to fortify the wellbeing of the people within, businesses cannot survive. After all, employee wellbeing has a direct affect on any organization’s bottom line.

“It’s important to have a plan,” said Amy Arnold, director of workforce health at Kaiser Permanente, the Mid-Atlantic region’s leading health system, which provides both care and coverage to business customers to develop a healthy and engaged workforce.

“The next normal is continuing to evolve. Businesses continue to refine and reimagine, processes, procedures and people strategies,” said Arnold. “Organizations will likely look different in the future.”

As business leaders approach this new frontier and look to remain successful, they must look toward a permanent, and better “next normal”—one built upon three vital pillars: physical health, mental health and social health.


As coronavirus cases are still being reported across much of the U.S., it comes as no surprise that getting sick is at the foremost of everyone’s concerns. Businesses must rely on advice from trusted agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local health authorities.

The bottom line remains the same: prevention is key. According to the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), stopping an outbreak begins with environmental sanitation. Businesses should undergo a hazard assessment and tailor their safety plan to their individual workplace. This should include routine cleaning and disinfecting using products approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

According to Julie Isaacs, regional director of behavioral health at Kaiser Permanente, frequent cleaning is about showing employees that they’re safe and allowing them to relax, as well as keeping them protected. “Be very visible with cleaning protocols,” she said. “The more you see people cleaning, the better you feel.”

Behind the cleaning and sanitation protocols lies a need for frequent, consistent communication. “Be transparent,” said Isaacs. “It’s ok if businesses don’t have all the answers. But continue to update the workforce and break things down into manageable chunks so they are getting a flow of information.”

93% of workers believe companies will survive the effects of covid-19 if they invest in their employees’ mental health.


While the physical cost of covid-19 is more visible, it’s evident that the virus and its consequences are taking a toll on the mind as well as the body. Between months of social isolation, loss, grief, uncertainty and upended routines, some mental health professionals are calling this the largest collective trauma since WWII.

Of course, mental health can also impact physical health. Employees who are stressed may experience high blood pressure, which can increase the risk for strokes or heart attacks. They may also rely on unhealthy foods to comfort themselves, leading to weight gain. This can funnel down to an organization’s bottom line: When employees aren’t healthy, their performance will suffer.

Given the consequences, lack of mental and emotional support from employers is no longer feasible. It is essential to offer resources to create a psychologically healthy workplace where employees feel safe, respected and empowered.

However, the onus does not have to rest entirely on the employer’s shoulders. The right healthcare partner can help by offering robust programs and clinical resources. Kaiser Permanente, for example, provides 24/7 connection to telehealth services and access to self-care apps like Calm and myStrength.

For workers to benefit from such programs, they need to be aware they exist. Businesses must communicate what mental health care services are offered in their plans and remind employees that their participation is confidential (a common misunderstanding). Also, consider expanding training to give managers the tools to address mental health issues and increasing the number of check-ins so workers feel they have the space to share how they feel.

Moving forward, it will also be important to commit to mental health stigma reduction—even beyond present circumstances. Kaiser Permanente’s FindYourWords public health campaign, which tackles the stigma that prevents many from talking about mental health, offers tools to help employers and employees alike to understand that physical and mental health are inextricably tied. Understanding this, and offering the right resources, will need to be a mainstay in a post-pandemic world.

According to DeLinda Washington, VP of Human Resources at Kaiser Permanente, a plan for expanding mental health in the workplace can begin with one thing: “Listen. It’s so important to pay attention.” Doing so will ensure that this new culture of support goes beyond the pandemic. Employees will have the resources they need to move through any type of future stress, which in turn will help to maintain a resilient workforce.


While all communities are affected by covid-19, the pandemic doesn’t look the same for everyone. Across the world, underserved minority groups have been hit hardest, by the virus, economic fallout and mental health burdens, particularly as historical and structural inequality have become a prominent part of the national conversation.

Social and economic factors such as a person’s access to basic nutrition, a place to live, family support, and education play a significant role in how people meet the everyday demands of life. It is clear that even beyond this pandemic, it’s up to businesses to ensure that the specific social and economic needs of their entire workforce are met. That begins with a conversation.

“You have to ask the questions to understand the needs your employees have,” says Washington. For Kaiser Permanente, that meant creating a grant to help employees pay for childcare while juggling work.

Meanwhile, Isaacs has noticed a rising disparity along with the increasing demand for access to technology. “This is becoming the world of the haves and have nots,” she said. “One of the things this pandemic has surfaced is a number of members who don’t have access to internet for their health care appointments. We’re working with IT to set up clinics just for video capability.”

Moving forward, the digital divide—and other disparities—must be addressed. The next workplace normal is uncompromisingly inclusive and accessible.

How can business leaders ensure that they’re addressing every social need? In addition to talking directly with workers, employers can look into demographic data such as the percentage of employees who access their retirement funds early and utilization of the counseling and referrals from the employee assistance program (EAP). Once they determine where the gaps lie, they can begin to solve for those discrepancies.

On average, only 5% of employees utilize Employee Assistance Program resources each year.

The right healthcare partner should be able to help identify and solve for these opportunities. Kaiser Permanente can assist with population health by creating a holistic healthcare program, optimizing EAP services, providing referrals to legal consultation or daycare, or offering affordable healthcare payment options. They also recently launched the Mid-Atlantic Community Network, a comprehensive, curated network of social services. Resources like this should become commonplace moving forward.

Poor health—physical, mental or social—can lead to missing work, low morale and low productivity. All of these take a toll on an organization’s bottom line. Businesses leaders must recognize that there is a direct tie between employee wellbeing and the overall success of the business. In this spirit, Arnold’s team created the Return to Work Playbook, a document that’s often updated with the most current tools, information and recommendations to help companies support their employees.

“It is important for employers to realize that everything is interconnected,” says Arnold. “If you focus on creating a culture that’s psychologically healthy and safe, you will begin to support social drivers of health. And if they feel safe, heard and included, that’s going to inspire the employee to have a deeper connection with the organization and with the mission.”


Originally published on The Washington Post.