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Coping With COVID

Handling fatigue in the essential workforce

December 21, 2020 Photo

Back in May 2019—seemingly a decade ago to most individuals these days—the World Health Organization (WHO) first included “workplace burnout” as an occupational phenomenon in its 11th Revision of International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). In essence, WHO defined is as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. This “occupational phenomenon” is a three-headed beast that includes feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance or feelings of negativism and cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy. The Mayo Clinic opined that consequences of this syndrome included mental and physical manifestations such as fatigue, insomnia, anger, sadness, headaches, heart disease, high blood pressure, Type-2 diabetes and decreased immunity to illness.

Let’s fast forward to our “new” normal of present day, where the wretched COVID-19 “Kraken” has been released and is part of everyday life. With it also came a new phrase: essential worker. Combine both this new phrase and workplace burnout, and it becomes clear that there will be implications for workers’ compensation claims.

Clearly, the employee who contracts COVID-19 may give rise to a compensable claim if the employee can prove infection occurred in the course and scope of the employment—something made easier to achieve when many states enacted legislation to expand presumption rules to essential workers like nurses, doctors, delivery persons, and clerks who took care of the nation. Costs will increase as claims from actual infection from contact with infected individuals in the workplace are made, and there are predictions of post-traumatic stress disorder claims that may arise from doctors, nurses, and health care workers who witnessed extensive loss of human life and heartbreak.

Tier two claims are likely to arise from those who have been fortunate enough to continue to work from home and avoid termination, layoffs, or furloughs. Yet, these workers have experienced stressors, as well. What are the effects of working from home at the kitchen table, throwing the work-life balance out of whack? Many faced pressures from increased workloads, proving one’s value to an organization, and, for some, social isolation.

It all seems exhausting. Burn out syndrome plus the pandemic equals COVID-19 fatigue.

Employers, claims professionals, and leadership must be mindful of the detrimental effects of COVID-19 fatigue on the worker’s physical and mental health. Will these cases of anxiety, depression, or high blood pressure become compensable under worker’s compensation laws? Time will tell. The data currently cuts both ways.

In a Dec. 3, 2020, report co-authored by Deloitte’s Gary Shaw and Neal Baumann entitled, “2021 Insurance Outlook, Accelerating Recovery From the Pandemic While Pivoting to Thrive,” which included a global survey of 200 insurance industry leaders, predicts an uptick in claims disputes as more employees return to their workplaces. Further, the survey results emphasize the need for conventional work strategies to be evaluated for both the short and long term for a post-pandemic culture and proper fit for the employees and the organization. Employees will take their cues from strong yet flexible leadership. Fears and anxieties, which conceivably may morph into more serious health conditions, can be quelled by effective empowerment of employees when defining the post-pandemic workplace. The feeling of control calms employee anxiety, increases buy-in, and deters COVID-19 fatigue worker’s compensation claims.

In reality, all essential workers are subject to COVID-19 fatigue. Proactivity on the part of employers, insurers, and leaders can decrease future risk and costs, though. Some employers will need to overhaul their cultures and mindsets, and they should encourage employee feedback in deciding how the culture will now be defined. Empowering workers now with a voice will decrease anxiety of the unknown.

For some employees and employers, long-term remote working could be mutually beneficial, since many essential workers view it as a welcome perk. If the worker is productive and happy, then working remotely could help deter COVID-19 fatigue and burnout. In these new situations, a healthy balance of communication between the employee and employer is a key component for success. In some cases, productivity has increased with new remote workers learning how to truly dial in and focus on helping the company succeed.

Recognition of such teamwork will be a challenge for some supervisors who now lack the traditional in-person, face-to-face interaction. The answer is not six hours a day of Zoom calls, but rather regular check-ins, transparency of expectations, and developing small teams or pods of workers for effective communication and collaboration. These tools may involve some upfront costs and changes in philosophy, but such strategies can help decrease the likelihood of COVID-19 fatigue and burnout-related worker’s compensation claims.

In the Trenches

However, some essential workers are experiencing COVID-19 fatigue to a level that needs to be addressed immediately. Establishing employee wellness programs are key to helping all workers. Also, employers should encourage employees showing signs of burnout to take personal time off with the assurance that it is acceptable to do so. Many essentials have taken very little or, in some cases, no personal time off. Where red flags like this are noticed, employers should take the extra step to affirm the importance of personal time or mental health days. A few mental health days now can help avert costly litigated stress claims later.

For the essentials who do report to the office or job site, employers must foster best safety practices. Fatigue, both physical and mental, can cause a worker to have lapses in safe practices. In the transportation industry, it is paramount that time on the road is regulated, as many drivers face a distinctive pressure to meet rising demand. Breaks need to be enforced, requests for assistance accommodated when possible, and proper sleep hygiene allocated in scheduling.

In-office social distancing and masks, if mandated, are practices that must become part of the work routine. For years, collaboration, shared workspaces, and team meetings have been a regular part of the corporate workday. Now, office doors will close and workers should be spaced apart. Staggered schedules can be useful to accommodate company needs and decrease employee anxiety. Encouraging employees to collaborate on the staggered schedules provides a feeling of empowerment and control.

The worker’s compensation world will not be exempt from the effects of COVID-19 fatigue. Promoting a healthy workforce will deter burnout and its related claims. Adding more of a human element to employment shows that we have learned from this year. It is an opportunity to increase employee welfare and decrease worker’s compensation exposure. As the sun sets on 2020, an important take-away is an appreciation for the well-being of all.

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About The Authors
Tricia G. Bellich

Tricia G. Bellich is an attorney with Reminger Co., LPA, in its Northwest Indiana office.  tbellich@reminger.com

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