Are You Responsible for Your Employees' Health?

Corporations have a vested interest in promoting talent development and maintaining employee satisfaction. But should they provide care in times of pandemics such as COVID-19? And what should they do?

In 1851, British industrialist Sir Titus Salt built a village – yes, an entire village – complete with houses, schools, shops, infirmaries, laundries and the rest. He then moved a few thousand people out of the squalid slums of Bradford, four miles to the south, and plopped them into their new homes. At the town’s center was their place of work, Salt’s Textile Mill – also brand new and outfitted with all the latest technology.

In 1861, brothers George and Richard Cadbury moved their cocoa and chocolate factory – and all of their workers – from Birmingham to a similar ‘model village’ called Bournville. George even extended it in 1893, aiming, in his words, to ‘alleviate the evils of modern, more cramped living conditions.’

This same pattern continued around much of Europe as industrialists attempted to keep their workers healthy (and out of the pub). In the Netherlands, from the heavy industry of Amsterdam to the coalmines along the country’s southern border, company owners set up allotment gardens and soccer clubs to occupy their workers with constructive pursuits.

The movement made some small inroads in the United States. Henry Ford, otherwise known as a vehement nationalist with Nazi leanings, realized he could keep his workforce happy by paying them well and reducing their work week from six days to five. In return, they had to speak fluent English, be married, lead ‘a clean, sober and industrious life’ and embrace ‘American values’ at the cost of any immigrant culture they might have inherited.

Let us be clear. This enlightened self-interest, as it is now called, was as much about self-interest as it was about employee health. Titus Salt’s workers paid him rent to live in his houses and paid him for the food they bought in his groceries. In return, however, they had job security and healthy and safe living conditions. By the standards of the day, it was a small price to pay.

Fast Forward

…to the end of the Second World War. Around Europe and beyond, governments saw fit to initiate publicly funded healthcare, designed to meet most medical costs, usually through taxation. This idea hadn’t just fallen from the sky. The War had necessitated a general healthcare system at a time when it was most needed. But there was more. After the ‘enlightened’ nineteenth century, companies became less interested in their employees’ welfare. Particularly in the heavy industry that had sprouted from the First World War, if you got injured at work, it was your tough luck. This was war, after all.

And, on to the present day. By most measures we seem to have taken a major, if unfortunate, step backward. True, publicly funded healthcare is up and running in a variety of forms throughout Europe. In the U.S., most salaried employees are covered by their own in-house health insurance systems; or by external, managed care consortiums; or by healthcare facilities for low-income populations. And, in 2014, President Obama worked to institute the Affordable Care Act to get the rest of the American public on board, though this has not been without its political opponents and teething problems.

These days, corporations everywhere take a strong interest in promoting talent growth by offering their personnel in-house training to help them develop and take on more and new challenges within the company. They also set up clubs, health programs and other initiatives to increase employee satisfaction. In addition to the advantages that come from retaining staff, there is also a certain prestige associated with being seen as a good employer. Every business likes to see its name listed among the year’s Most Attractive Companies. What is more, being seen as a good employer helps them attract the best and brightest graduates and professionals.

Work – or Lack Thereof – in the Time of Corona

But what about the role of businesses as healthcare providers in the current day? What do they owe their rank and file? Do they owe them anything at all?

Sure, we have all seen the horror stories about CEOs who have taken big bonuses while treating their employees like dirt. But, for each of these, there are far more accounts of companies coming up with creative solutions to help out their staff. In some cases, the solutions are not monetary simply because businesses can’t offer money if they have none coming in. But there are food companies that are feeding their staff, alcoholic drink producers that have retooled to manufacture hand sanitizer and, yes, plenty of managers who have taken pay cuts and donated their salaries to their employees.

Tech companies have perhaps had the easiest time of it because they do not have to do a great deal of restructuring to allow people to work remotely. Other companies have issued their employees with protective masks and hand sanitizer and moved their desks farther apart. Many organizations are setting up regular video meetings just to help their people fight their sense of isolation. And, more than a few are holding yoga classes, wellness education and mindfulness meditation sessions to help them deal with stress.

Doing Well By Doing Good

There is plenty of room for imaginative solutions. In addition to ‘simply’ keeping their staff on the payroll, some companies are making gestures just to spread the love. One – not so far from where this article was written – sent out light-hearted ‘CARE Packages’ containing photos, a candy bar, a roll of toilet paper and a note reading We Miss You. It might sound silly, but it can go a long way toward creating a sense of belonging. It sends a clear message to employees that they haven’t been forgotten.

Businesses cannot go back to the full (and often intrusive) coverage that they provided in the nineteenth century, nor should they. But there is still a lot that they can do. In March of 2020, research company SSRN published the findings of a study performed after the COVID-19 lockdown in which they claim that ‘firms with more satisfied employees experienced smaller stock price drops’ and ‘employee morale is beneficial for shareholders during disastrous times.’

So taking care of your staff isn’t only the nice thing to do – it also makes good business sense.

Picture of Steve Schwartz

Steve Schwartz

Steve Schwartz studied journalism at Indiana University (USA). He worked for CBS News and as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. Steve has been living in the Netherlands since 1982 and has combined writing and communications training for years.

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