COVID-19 and Racial Disparities: Transforming the Health of Businesses

Margarita Alegría, PhD, Chief of the Disparities Research Unit at Massachusetts General HospitalAmerican businesses and their leadership are at a crossroads. COVID-19 has forced us all to re-evaluate how we work and live, while the current protest movements have placed a spotlight on the systemic injustices non-white workers face both in and out of the office. Given that communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, companies serious about doing right by their employees need to act decisively and clearly or risk becoming complicit in the racial and social inequities we so desperately need to correct.

The mass lay-offs and furloughs, erratic work schedules, limited sick leave benefits, and low wages have become a testament of how employers can play a role in the financial fragility and hardship of their employees. Throughout my career as a researcher and educator, I’ve seen institutions successfully make progress around racial/ethnic health disparities. In these instances, leadership has taken decisive action to review how policies and employee regulations—both explicit and implicit—have contributed to the disparities. This process needs to be ongoing, requiring company leadership to have the courage to commit to social change.

In the wake of the current social justice movement, many companies have put out statements of support for the protest movement, highlighting how they are working to address racial injustice. But these statements have been met with skepticism, especially from former and current Black employees, many of whom experienced circumstances where they did voice concerns to managers or leadership, but those concerns were ignored or left in limbo.

We’re seeing this buildup of lack of trust in workplaces across the country, especially in light of the pandemic. Consider this through the lens of reopening. The first step in determining how to open safely for all employees is listening to employees and their unique concerns. If employers truly want to reopen safely, they need to be open to receiving feedback, even when it might be tough to hear.

Once employers have employee opinion and advice, they must devise a plan for addressing their concerns, identifying what arsenal of expertise and partnerships are needed to make sustainable social change and protect employee health. Each company will have a different reopening plan depending on their needs, location, and available resources and will have to use their creativity as employers deal with the pain of serious financial losses while still committing to safeguarding employee health.

Crucially, leadership should evaluate health insurance coverage at every level of the company, as equitable access to healthcare and healthcare information via employers can go a long way in addressing a company’s racial inequalities. Further, access and information are powerful tools for alleviating anxiety, encouraging trust, and diminishing uncertainty, such as:

– Are all your employees covered for medical benefits?

– Do they know what COVID-19 related procedures and treatments are covered under their current plans?

– Can these be expanded to be ready for the next pandemic?

Trust also requires employers to regularly and critically evaluate the solutions they have put into place for employees, especially digital solutions. Digital health evaluations and AI health screening tools can appear to simplify the burden of addressing health or racial concerns.  But, these tools also have faced their own issues around racial and gender bias. The guidance provided by these tools is only as good as the data that informs the platform. Employers must ask hard questions about how comfortable employees are disclosing health information, in addition to interrogating what data is informing their guidance and how confidential is the disclosed information. AI and other digital platforms are not band-aids for companies that are looking to reopen, they are part of a larger action plan that must be informed by employees’ needs and the latest expert guidance around how to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Regardless of the pandemic, companies, and institutions that have historically made any progress around racial diversity and inclusion have actively incorporated social justice into their mission. In the midst of a pandemic, that commitment is even more critical.

The process of addressing disparities can be painful, but if companies are serious about reopening safely, they must face these realities head-on. If the commitment is real, the company evolves to a place with better employee loyalty and a stronger reputation. In today’s world, this progress will literally save lives.

About Margarita Alegría, PhD

Margarita Alegría, PhD is the Chief of the Disparities Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She is also a member of the Buoy Health Back with Care™ advisory board. She is one of the country’s leading health disparities researchers, and her expertise on the role of health disparities during COVID-19 has been highlighted in publications that include USA Today, The Hill, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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