Business of Well-being

Heather Saunders Talks Workplace Pandemic Preparedness and Employee Safety with Corporate Wellness Magazine

COVID-19 and the workplace

Article Highlights:

  • Companies need to take more seriously whatever they're doing to keep employees safe.  It’s time to “rev up” risk mitigation in the workplace
  • GHA For Business also provides organizations with the requisite tools for building a more resilient and healthy workforce.
  • It’s the employee’s world now as they are going to be looking out for employers that offer the safest place to work.
  • Business owners must take this as a wake-up call to rethink employee safety as a continuous workplace project, not just about today or this pandemic, but arming the workplace with concrete steps to mitigating even future pandemics.


Jonathan Edelheit, Chairman and Co-founder of the Global Healthcare Resources and the Corporate Health & Wellness Association spoke with Heathers Saunders, an infection preventionist and infection prevention and control researcher at Johns Hopkins University. Saunders spoke about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted businesses and how employers can integrate effective strategies to safeguard employee health and safety amid the pandemic and beyond. Heather consults major corporations on their workplace infectious disease policies and is also on the advisory board of Global Healthcare Accreditation.


Jonathan Edelheit: Tell us a little about yourself and your experience with infectious disease in the workplace?

Heather: I am a nurse with about 10 years of experience in the emergency department before switching over to working as an infection preventionist. I have worked at Johns Hopkins hospital as an infection control epidemiologist as well as for the state health department. I now have a private company that provides businesses and healthcare companies with insights for preventing and controlling infectious diseases.  

Jonathan: Can you tell where we are currently with the pandemic, with Omicron, and what the coming weeks or months hold for us?

Heather:  We are seeing astronomical case numbers right now. COVID-19 is increasing in case numbers around the world. We could describe this as the post-holiday surge. We saw a similar surge last year, we saw this in 2020, but now, we have a new variant in the mix this year, driving a greater surge. We are also seeing record numbers of hospitalizations. Of course, with all of that, we are seeing increases in deaths as well.

This trend is particularly concerning for healthcare workers right now, as they bear the brunt of this surge: people are flooding the hospitals with cases of severe COVID-19 that requires intensive care or even mild illness that requires hospitalizations. Our health care workers are getting sick too, causing serious staffing shortages in our hospitals.

We are also seeing this in businesses too. Businesses are experiencing severe staffing shortages due to the current, unprecedented surge of infections. Many workers are taking days off work for COVID-19 isolation and treatment. We have not seen this before in the pandemic. We are definitely hitting a record number of daily cases around the world, particularly in certain regions.

Jonathan: How is this current surge affecting business right now; is it going to be more disruptive to business than previous waves?

Heather: We are seeing more disruption of the surge to businesses. There are sufficient data, albeit preliminary, to suggest that the omicron variant is more infectious than previous variants. This implies that for every person that has COVID-19 with the Omicron variant, they are infecting more people and more quickly than previous variants.

Previously, we were seeing an incubation period of five to seven days before an infected person developed symptoms. Now with Omicron, we're seeing an average of three days before symptoms start to present. Now, when you have a variant that does this, it is likely to be more disruptive because it hits everybody at once, hence the current massive surge of infections across the world.

Consequently, with this higher transmissibility and infectivity, there are more employees isolating, which means a reduced workforce. The airline industry seems to be hard hit by this, as we are seeing lots of flight cancellations as airline crews, pilots, and staff are contracting the infection at a high rate.

Jonathan: How do companies balance the need to keep their business going and keep everyone safe at the same time?

Heather: There are many strategies for employers to keep business going while also safeguarding employee health and safety. In healthcare, for example, we are discontinuing elective procedures and other services that can wait so that we can divert the energy and resources to more crucial needs. This involves shifting staff from some of those elective procedure areas to work in the more critical areas of the hospital.

This model works for other areas of business as well, not just the healthcare industry. Employers should now be focusing and expending their resources on implementing proactive measures. Employers need to ask themselves the right questions; how can we as a business, best prevent and control COVID-19? What can we do to keep our employees and customers safe?

If everybody is on board with prevention and control measures and can avoid infection, then we won't have to worry about staffing shortages.

Jonathan: Does that mean that companies need to take more seriously whatever they're doing to keep employees safe?

Heather: Definitely. But I’ll quickly add that companies were serious about COVID-19 mitigation measures, but they got relaxed as things got better. We were able to take a step back from some of our mitigation measures. Vaccination also helped to curb the contagion; pulling businesses back a bit to our comfort zone. However, with the current surge and the emergence of new, highly infectious variants, we need to rev up our mitigation strategies. 

This comes in spite of the increasing number of people taking vaccine shots. While available COVID-19 vaccines help to lower infection rates, they do not completely prevent people from getting infected. And while people who are vaccinated tend to have milder illness, they can still transmit the virus to other individuals. So prevention strategies are definitely integral to curbing the contagion.

Those are the strategies that companies need to be thinking about, drafting policies and creating protocols to keep employees safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19, to keep business going.

Jonathan: Can you tell us about the Global Healthcare Accreditation for Business, the development of which you were a part, and how it is important?

Heather: GHA For Business is crucial for business in the context of the pandemic and beyond as it demonstrates to employees and customers that employers prioritize and care about their health and safety. This is important because when the pandemic first hit in 2020, we saw employees quit jobs, walk away from jobs because they were concerned for their health and safety. They were scared that their employers did not prioritize their health and safety enough to shield them from the contagion. However, this accreditation says to our employees: we care about your health, we care about your safety and we're going to take steps to safeguard and maintain it.

That speaks volumes and it's so important for the business themselves too, because again, we want to be able to continue operations and we can only achieve that by prioritizing the health and safety of employees and customers. So, GHA For Business is supporting both sides: the continuity of business and the health and safety of employees.

Now, GHA For Business isn’t just strategies and policies that deal with the coronavirus pandemic, but also for future pandemics. It demonstrates employers’ continuous commitment to employee safety and health and keeping their work environment safe. Beyond the pandemic, GHA For Business also provides organizations with the requisite tools for building a more resilient and healthy workforce.

And in the context of the great resignation, adopting the strategies and elements in the GHA For Business means employers can attract and retain the best talents. It’s the employee’s world now as they are going to be looking out for employers that offer the safest place to work.

Jonathan: Do you think we are approaching the end of the pandemic with Omicron?

Heather: Time will tell, but there are signs suggesting that we are nearing the end of this pandemic. However, it does not mean the virus will be wiped away from the planet; the virus will become like the other respiratory viruses that flow throughout the year in low levels. It will become another respiratory virus that spikes seasonally. With the Omicron variant, when we start to see less transmissibility throughout the year and more stable numbers, it might get us to the point where it becomes endemic to the population and it loses its status as a pandemic.

However, the concern is that we're going to see more variants in the future that could potentially have more mutations. These variants could cause more infections and even hospitalizations and deaths, depending on the severity of illness they cause. So this possibility threatens the chance of the pandemic ending soon.

Jonathan: So what does this future of an endemic of COVID-19 mean for business?

Heather: It should be a wake-up call for a lot of businesses; businesses were not prepared for the pandemic. They might have had a pandemic preparedness policy on the shelf but never looked at it until now. So business owners must take this as a wake-up call to rethink employee safety as a continuous workplace project, not just about today or this pandemic, but arming the workplace with concrete steps to mitigating even future pandemics. This not only ensures the workplace is safe for workers and customers, it also ensures the continuity of business amid infectious disease outbreaks—that is what the GHA For Business offers.

So employers need to start drafting and rethinking workplace safety and health policies to create a workplace that safeguards employee safety, health, and wellbeing for the long haul.

About GHA For Business

Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA) For Business is an all-encompassing tool, providing insights and guidelines in all aspects of an organization’s operations; from employee attraction, recruitment, engagement, retention, and productivity, with a primary focus on building a healthy and resilient workforce. With 16 accreditation elements impacting on-site, remote, and hybrid workforces, GHA For Business provides external validation of an organization’s commitment to the safety, health, and well-being of its employees, customers, and visitors. ​​It is designed for any organization focused on return-to-work strategies, sustaining a culture of resiliency, and developing a more purposeful vision, mission, and values around well-being.

GHA For Business helps companies develop, adapt, and verify protocols, policies, and procedures in line with global best practices. This, ultimately, helps organizations re-establish trust, confidence, and connection with their employees.

GHA is a recognized global authority in accreditation and certification with a specialized focus in workplace safety, health, and well-being as well as specializations in medical and wellness travel. Founded in 2016, GHA started initially as an independent business line of Global Healthcare Resources, Inc. (GHR), a leading education, and consulting firm in workplace safety, healthcare, well-being, and international healthcare, investment, and technology services.

GHA is a dynamic and innovative accreditation body pioneering a variety of framework, training, certification, and accreditation programs for stakeholders in all aspects of workplace safety, health, and wellbeing.

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