COVID-19: An approach to implementing a return to workplace strategy

According to a recent survey, 57% of employees feel concerned about returning to their worksite due to risk of COVID-19 exposure.1 Employers are thinking hard about what they can do to help employees protect themselves and others from COVID-19.

The current state has affected employee well-being on many different levels. Physical well-being has taken a toll as many employees have found it hard to get into a routine around exercise and even good eating. Varying financial challenges have employees concerned as well.

The biggest impact has been around social and mental well-being due to working at home and isolating during a time of societal shutdown. About 36% of employees surveyed said their well-being has been impacted. For mental well-being, 61% of women and 35% of men are negatively affected. For social well-being, 68% of women and 48% of men are negatively affected.2

The recommended approach for returning to the workplace

A comprehensive approach for returning to the worksite is critical from several perspectives, including health and safety, benefits, legal exposure and employee culture. It needs to be a well thought out, long-term strategy that addresses both the physical and emotional sides of well-being.

According to the CDC, employers should implement a plan that3:

  • Is specific to their workplace
  • Identifies all areas and job tasks with potential COVID-19 exposures
  • Includes control measures to eliminate or reduce exposures

The CDC also created a toolkit that aims to help employees slow the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. The toolkit includes an employer sheet, restart readiness checklist, worker protection tool, returning to work infographic and resources.4

In response to these recommendations, Optum created a four-phase approach to help ensure success in returning to work. The phases include prepare, check, support and care.

Prepare: There are many steps in preparing to bring the workforce back to the physical worksite. One key step involves sending communications to help employees feel prepared to return to work. It will also help them determine how to make the right decisions for themselves and their families. Some employers will offer an app that explains the process for returning to work, including symptom checking, health education and resources.

Meanwhile, the physical workspace is being prepared, which might involve adding hand sanitizer stations, moving furniture and configuring traffic flow to promote physical distancing. Employers can also post communications throughout the worksite to remind employees to wash their hands, sanitize their workstations, distance themselves and wear a mask.

Check: The check phase will vary by organization and will factor in availability, cost, quality, type and advancements. It could include a self-administered screening for symptoms. In some cases, employees with symptoms would be tested at either a lab, provider, near-site clinic or at home to determine if they have COVID-19. In other cases, a time-based approach of self-quarantine might be the protocol.  Employers might also include a temperature check or visual check at point of entry. The key is to figure out which approach works best for your business. Many of these decisions will be based on the rapidly changing landscape of resource availability, epidemiologic data and local policies.

Support: The support phase is ongoing and addresses both physical and emotional needs. For physical, a nurse line, available day or night and free to the user, could help employees who want to discuss any possible symptoms or health-related concerns. For emotional, it could involve counseling resources to help employees with anxiety or other emotional or social concerns. Resources may include a mental health app like Sanvello, videos on mental and physical health issues or virtual mental health visits.

Care: The care phase addresses how to support employees with chronic conditions exacerbated by the deferral of services or recovery from COVID-19. It involves helping employees understand their care plan, and how to protect their families and colleagues around them. Employees can also get help accessing medications, understanding how to remain compliant with social distancing protocols, and answering clinical questions.

Considerations for different work environments
The type of work your company does can affect the level of difficulty for returning to the worksite. For example, a manufacturing environment may have employees needing to work closely together, which will be one type of challenge. In office environments, it might be easier to separate desks and have smaller conference meetings. Employees who travel for work need to reassess how important each trip is and if it’s worth the safety risk. Some employees may choose to stop traveling altogether.

Regardless of the type of work your company does, it’s important to be mindful of the environment and keeping everyone as protected as possible. General techniques will go a long way in protecting the health and well-being of your employees as they return to work. Techniques include wearing a mask, washing your hands, not touching your face, using hand sanitizer and remaining socially distant.

Read our consumer survey to inform your employee well-being strategy during a time of rapid change.

Also, learn more about how a four-step approach can help you and your employees successfully return to the worksite.


About the Author
SerxnerSeth - Full shotSeth Serxner, PhD, MPH

Chief Health Officer, Optum

Seth Serxner, a national expert on behavior change, population health, well-being, social determinants of health and measurement, brings the breadth of his experience in academia, industry and consulting to his role as chief health officer at Optum.

His versatile skill set ensures processes and outcomes that improve health for clients in all markets. His deep knowledge of behavior change, population health and measurement allows him to visualize and deliver on program innovation.

He is a published author with over 25 years of experience in health and productivity management. He holds a master’s in public health and a doctorate from the University of California, where his research focused on health promotion and disease prevention in social ecology.



1 American Psychiatric Association sponsored poll. News release March 23, 2020.
2 Consumer Sentiment During a Time of Crisis Study, Optum, April 2020
3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Interim guidance for businesses and employers responding to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), May 2020. Last reviewed May 5, 2020. Accessed June 23, 2020.
4 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Resuming business toolkit. Last reviewed May 21, 2020. Accessed June 23, 2020.




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