Blog | 6 Feb 2020

Prioritising Employee Wellbeing in the Midst of the Coronavirus Outbreak

This opinion piece forms part of our IMPACTxAsia blog series

Prioritising Employee Wellbeing in the Midst of the Coronavirus Outbreak

This year’s Lunar New Year celebrations have been overshadowed by the rapid spread of the Coronavirus which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei Province. On 31 January the virus was declared a global public health emergency by the World Health Organization and, as of the time of writing, 16 cities in China have been placed on lockdown (affecting 45 million people) as the country attempts to halt the spread of the virus.  

For organisations and citizens in Greater China, the precautionary circumstances they find themselves in echo those instigated in 2003 when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) ripped through the region, infecting over 8,000 people globally and claiming over 774 lives (the majority of which were in Greater China). It is thought that SARS cost the world economy an estimated US$40 billion.  

Taking measures to ensure your employees are in the best physical and emotional health at this difficult time is paramount. Healthy and happy employees are productive employees and organisations should consider the long-term safety and health of their employees in order to futureproof their businesses. The shadow of the SARS outbreak still hangs over the region, and many citizens are feeling - once again – afraid, stressed and helpless. This can have a negative effect on their engagement at work, their productivity and mental wellbeing, not to mention their physical wellbeing if they do fall sick.  

From an employee wellbeing perspective, given the precarious situation Hong Kong has been in over the last nine months, employees may be particularly distressed by the outbreak of the Coronavirus, even if they or their families are not displaying symptoms. The outbreak poses a potential threat to the economy as well as business sustainability in the region. Compounded by the economic and social impact of the protests in Hong Kong, many citizens are considering whether or not to permanently leave the city. Businesses both in Asia and globally must prepare for what is likely to be a difficult few months ahead.  

At Community Business, we have compiled a few simple measures that organisations and individuals should consider implementing to help ensure their employees’ wellbeing at this difficult time:  

  • Companies should show care and understanding to all employees and take their health concerns and their decisions to self-quarantine, if they do not feel safe travelling, seriously.  

  • Managers should encourage their teams to take advantage of the digital tools at their disposal and work virtually to minimise face-to-face interaction. They should make allowances for a loss of motivation when teams are siloed for an extended period of time and plan for short, regular catch-up meetings to keep teams engaged. 

  • Managers should remind team members to reach out and communicate with each other to minimise the social detriment of working in isolation.  

  • Employees working from home should ensure they maintain a healthy work-life harmony by taking regular breaks and building in an exercise regime within the confines of what is safe and appropriate.  

  • Companies should encourage their employees to monitor their health closely. Given the high rate of infection in mainland China, companies might consider imposing a 14-day quarantine or work-from-home policy for any employee who has personally or has a family member who has recently travelled from China.  Companies should also develop protocols for when their employees fall sick, or if their employees have been in close contact with someone who has contracted the Coronavirus. 

  • Emotional as well as physical wellbeing of employees should be taken into consideration at this time. Line managers and other colleagues should be alert to this and ensure they are being supportive and caring.  If your organisation provides EAP services (employee assistance programme usually operated by a third party) to employees, reminding them of these confidential support services and the relevant hotline numbers would be helpful.  

  • Organisations should be mindful of the information they share widely, ensuring that they are citing reliable and accurate news sources and not inflaming regional tensions or hostile attitudes towards any particular group. 

  • Companies should communicate policies and procedures clearly to their employees. Useful sources to help build this communication can be found on the following websites: DLA Piper, Jackson LewisJDSpura and Willis Towers Watson  

  • Companies have a responsibility to provide a safe working environment for their employees, enabling each employee to be happy, healthy and engaged. This might include:
    • Allowing employees flexible working arrangements such as working from home.
    • For companies which do not have a flexible working policy, they should look to implement one as soon as possible.
    • Companies and line managers should be aware of the disruption that school closures might cause for working parents and take their need to be flexible and available for childcare into consideration.
    • Organising more frequent office cleaning and disinfecting especially in high traffic areas. 
    • Providing protective equipment and infrastructure to maintain workplace hygiene, such as masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectants, and hands-free trash bins, as well as a well-ventilated office. 
    • Be mindful of the fact that some employees may prefer to work at the office if they do not have an appropriate home environment to facilitate working from home. Companies should allow for this if practical. 

While planning for disruption to your own team is important, it is also key to consider the impact that these measures will have on your clients and other stakeholders that interact with your office. For example, your clients might decide to cut budgets or defer business decisions which could impact on your longer-term revenue as well as staff morale and workload. In addition, not being able to meet face-to-face with clients may impact on the nature of work that can be delivered at this time. Organisations may have to restructure, reschedule, or reprioritise work activities to align with the interim work arrangements. 

At this difficult time, we encourage employers to practice transparency, empathy and patience with their employees. As the situation unfolds over the next few weeks, we hope that businesses both in Asia and globally find a balance between keeping their operations running efficiently and productively and catering to the specific needs of their employees during this outbreak.  


About the Author: Emily Moss, Senior Manager, Marketing & Communications, Community Business