Our industry is engaged in an important dialogue to improve sustainability through ESG transparency and industry collaboration. This article is a contribution to this larger conversation and does not necessarily reflect GRESB’s position. Please refer to official GRESB documents for assessment related guidance.
Following coronavirus outbreaks in their supply chains, both Tyson Foods Inc. and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. added a Chief Medical Officer to their executive teams. These actions reflect the market’s increased emphasis on employee safety, health, and wellbeing in 2020.
Expansions of safety, health, and wellbeing were not uncommon pre-COVID. In fact, many sectors recorded an increase of these programs in 2019. Most companies that took steps to improve employee health and wellbeing last year acted proactively to increase worker productivity, loyalty, and talent. For example, the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2019 annual survey found that 20% of employers increased employee health-related and wellness benefits from the previous year.
Employer health and wellness programs and actions this year differ from 2019 by following a more reactive approach towards COVID-19. Companies have focused more on health precautions and tailored their wellbeing programs to help employees as they work from home. Some of the more notable 2020 health and wellbeing programs and trends include:
Mitigating COVID-19 & disease spread in the workplace
Research indicates that highly populated, unsanitary, and poorly ventilated indoor spaces increase the risk of COVID-19 spread. Unsurprisingly, many COVID-19 outbreaks were traced back to factories, call centers, restaurants, and other confined and closed air facilities. Companies have implemented health programs with the goal to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and other diseases. First, mandatory masking and physical distancing policies have spiked to control person-to-person contact and virus transmission. Many workplaces accommodate these behavioral controls with paid sick leave to encourage employees to stay home if they feel under the weather. One study found that businesses reduced employee flu infections by 25.33% and 39.22% if they provided 1 or 2 paid sick days, respectively.
Workplace cleanliness has also been on the rise in 2020. Companies have posted new handwashing signage, installed glass shields on cubicles, front desks, and other gathering places, and regularly sanitized doorknobs, light switches, bathrooms, kitchens, and more.
Finally, companies made small HVAC changes that limit the potential dispersal of COVID-19 and other pathogens. Most notably, a review of 40 scientific articles determined that higher building ventilation rates decrease disease spread. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) found that ventilation rates up to 12 air changes/hour maximize uncontaminated air. Other building HVAC improvements to reduce disease aerosol transmission include installing high-efficiency air filters and industrial-scale dehumidifiers.
Building employee trust & loyalty
The hiring of a CMO by Tyson Foods and Royal Caribbean represents a trend of companies consciously attempting to improve a sense of safety for employees before they inevitably return to the workplace. A March 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that more than four in ten adults felt their mental health declined due to the worry and stress associated with COVID-19 risks. Offices, warehouses, retail, and other places of work can mitigate many of these perceived risks by implementing disease mitigation practices, openly communicating the mitigation measures taken, and adding future emergency preparedness plans.
The public relations firm Edelman conducted a surprising survey of workers in ten countries where 63% of respondents said they trusted coronavirus information from their employer. This percentage was higher than trust in government websites (58%) and the traditional media (51%). Many companies have embraced this role as a trusted coronavirus information source through expanded communication. For example, Walmart developed its 6-20-100 guidance for employees of standing six feet apart, washing hands for 20 seconds, and staying home with a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Other options to increase communication include building-wide newsletters, webinars, and workplace signage that share the latest actions taken by your company to address COVID-19.
Developing or updating emergency preparedness and pandemic plans will also improve communication and trust with employees. The coronavirus fallout has highlighted the need for pandemic preparedness plans in the workplace that identify roles for all key stakeholders in mitigating infections, determine how the business will operate during the pandemic, predict legal considerations, and facilitate clear communication.
Supporting worker health & wellbeing at home
The coronavirus has confined most workers to their homes. Individuals working in poor-quality housing, living inactive lifestyles, and experiencing limited social interactions with others often experience mental health stress and discomfort. Compared to the in-office environment, remote work presents a different set of obstacles to monitor and address employee health and wellbeing. Yet many effective tools and strategies exist to help employees remotely. At Goby, ClassPass was added to our insurance plan to allow free at-home workouts. Many companies have hosted virtual happy hours or pizza parties via Zoom and other video platforms to encourage social interaction. Finally, Mental Health America recorded innovative programs developed by eight large corporations to support employee mental health during COVID-19.
Health & wellbeing certification trends in 2020
The abundance of safety, health, and wellbeing practices and strategies being implemented in response to COVID-19 could generate significant ESG investment and long-term value for your company. The premier health and wellness certification programs Fitwel and WELL have both developed new resources and rating systems to help your company build a resilient workplace and community to respond to COVID-19 and future emergencies. In addition, Goby’s clients have shown increased interest in the RESET standards and assessment tools, which allow your company to track built environment metrics in real-time. COVID-19 has understandably disrupted and delayed Fitwel, WELL, and RESET certifications. However, it’s strongly encouraged that your company consider the innovative rating and certification systems developed by each of these programs to aid with COVID-19 recovery.
This year, Fitwel introduced its Viral Response module that allows building owners, companies, and commercial tenants to monitor and share strategies they used to effectively mitigate viral transmission. The Fitwel Certification for Viral Response can apply to a wide range of building types, including senior housing, hospitality, academic, workplace, hotels, retail, industrial, and multifamily residential. Fitwel outlined most of the cost-effective and evidence-based strategies to mitigate viral transmission in its free resource series Research to Action: Building Health for All® in the Face of COVID-19.
The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) developed the WELL Health-Safety Rating to highlight strategies that instill worker confidence and security in buildings and office spaces post-coronavirus. This third-party verified rating incorporated insights from the IWBI COVID-19 and Other Respiratory Infections Task Force, consisting of nearly 600 public health experts, virologists, government officials, academics, business leaders, and more. The rating of facility operations scores based on actions taken in five core areas of (1) cleaning and sanitization procedures, (2) emergency preparedness programs, (3) health service resources, (4) air and water quality management, and (5) stakeholder engagement and communication. The WELL Health-Safety Rating requires annual renewal to ensure the safety of spaces during both emergencies and normal operating periods.
The RESET Standard grabbed the attention of Goby and many of our clients by utilizing a set of cloud software, sensors, benchmarking tools, third-party audits, and certification services to monitor indoor air quality performance in real time and develop long-term strategies that improve the health and sustainability of real estate. Recently, RESET partnered with HB Reavis’ real estate technology solution Symbiosy to measure and communicate optimal building performance targets that mitigate airborne viral infections. RESET plans to integrate Symbiosy’s disease prevention score into its system and help develop an evidence-based score for COVID-19.
Start improving your company’s health & wellbeing reporting
Fitwel, WELL, and RESET understand that your company’s long-term ESG valuation will depend on your response to and recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Their tools, strategies, and response plans will help you prepare your employees and tenants to better manage and mitigate current and future risks from viral diseases.
This article was written by Christine Cho, a senior consultant at Goby