The fight against COVID-19 in Nigeria and Africa at large is different from what is seen in other continents due to a host of distinct features in the region – weak healthcare systems, insufficient employee support, testing capacity, and capabilities as well as the presence of other medical battles such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and Ebola.

As of Wednesday, there were over 75,000 cases across 53 African countries with 2,559 deaths and more than 27,000 recoveries. Despite the surge in the number of infections in recent weeks, questions remain on whether Africa’s young population makes it less vulnerable to the virus outbreak compared to the rest of the world.

Regardless, companies operating in Africa’s most populous nation have stepped up efforts to provide support to their employees, said Nick Zaranyika, Mercer’s Business Leader for Nigeria and West Africa in a webinar organized by the international consulting firm.

Employers are providing support through health maintenance organizations such as insurance cover for COVID 19 care, telehealth assistance, drug deliveries to homes (chronic care), free mental wellness services, and weekly health guidelines, as detailed by Zaranyika in a presentation titled Restore confidence through health.

A Mercer employee support survey across different industries in Africa shows that 47 percent of employers addressed employees’ psychological stress, 20 percent conducted internal surveys to understand employees’ sentiment, while 56 percent encouraged group interaction and 32 percent are providing peer support networks during the current crisis.

The report further reveals that 48 percent distributed company approach to health and wealth, 43 percent established a private COVID-19 hotline for employees in order to encourage self-disclosure, 54 percent allow employees with children to determine their own work schedule but only 20 percent are providing internet subsidies for remote working.

“In extended periods of being away from the office tends to drop your engagement and energy towards work. And so I think what is very important for employers to be doing is to be conducting those surveys and understand how engaged your employees are while they are at home because engaged and energized employees drive business success,” said Tamara Parker, Mercer South Africa CEO.

More so, several businesses are supporting government initiatives via cash donations, construction of isolation and care centres, provision of free mobile data for medical personnel, organizing awareness and education campaigns, provision of life insurance cover for medical workers as well as donations to health workers fund.

A new normal is emerging

The COVID-19 pandemic has recalibrated every aspect of work, life, and play, shifting most daily activities into the digital and the confines of homes. There will be implications on how work is done in the future, Parker said, expecting a significant number of changes in the workplace.

“I think what most of us have realized is that there’s never going to be normal again. It’s going to be a new kind of normal. And your employees have also realized that there are many things they can do at home depending of course on the nature of the industry and the way it works,” the chief executive said. “Remote or flexible working is going to be here forever. So even when the economy opens up, I think employees are going to start asking questions about office-bound work.”

She adds that one of the things important as companies start preparing to go back to offices is that regimes around hygiene, disinfectants, mask-wearing, etc are going to be very onerous. Therefore, there will be a phased approach in terms of who goes back to the office while workforces that can work remotely will probably be encouraged to work remotely for a longer period of time.

“And I think what we are realizing is that HR (human resources) obviously has to redefine policies,” she continued, “they have to be able to support remote working and for example, rectify the fact that companies are not providing support for internet access.”

Heading into the post-pandemic era, Zaranyika highlighted key considerations for employers. These include carrying out a review of all aspects of employee benefits and their relevance now and for the future, considering the enhancement of financial support to employees with additional innovative solutions that are emerging during this pandemic and re-thinking strategy, that is, finding a balance between business continuity and supporting employees with empathy, understanding, and communication.

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