Healthcare industry in the time of COVID-19

July 06, 2020

What is the healthcare industry doing and how can we learn from them?

While working in the healthcare industry as an HR professional has always been a challenging role, the complexity and urgency of the role magnified exponentially in March of this year (2020).

Those working in the healthcare industry have demonstrated perseverance during a time of rapid change and uncertainty, and determination against formidable circumstances. As you know, HR professionals and Leadership teams in healthcare are being stretched to the limits by having to very quickly develop new protocols and staffing modules, while ensuring an ever-growing patient population is cared for.

The most recent version of Mercer’s IHN: Healthcare System and Hospital Compensation suite of surveys is available now, containing a comprehensive knowledge base to help you continue to reward healthcare professionals competitively and effectively.

The healthcare industry and the HR professionals within it have risen to the occasion in both implementing amazing patient protocols and leading with empathy to protect and reward their employees. You have done this. Thank you.

According to Mercer’s Healthcare Coronavirus (COVID-19) Poll, which was administered over the course of seven weeks starting in March, healthcare organizations have responded to COVID-19 in a variety of ways. A few to note are listed below.

If you’d like additional information on how employers are responding, beyond just healthcare, please check out Mercer’s COVID-19 surveys.

Actions healthcare has taken in response to COVID-19

Returning to work

In early May, we asked participants in Mercer’s Healthcare COVID-19 poll just what needed to be done to get people back to work (multiple answers were allowed). By far, the top concern was that organizations needed to create protocols for risk reduction for their workforce.

As restrictions are lifted, what needs to be done for your workfoce to prepare for return to work? (multiple responses allowed)


Controlling labor costs

Cost management has always been a top priority for healthcare organizations. The initial postponement of elective surgeries/procedures when COVID-19 set in created even more of a need to identify opportunities for cost reduction in healthcare. While many organizations instituted hiring freezes, forced time off, furloughs, and controlled/eliminated overtime, there are a few other ways healthcare has controlled the cost of labor.

You may have wondered if healthcare professionals are being paid premiums. The answer may surprise you, but over the course of the Mercer Healthcare COVID-19 survey we asked this question several times, and consistently the majority of respondents indicated that they were not paying a special premium for employees working with COVID-19 patients.

Organizations have been able to minimize any new hires by shifting workers within the organization. Additionally, flexible staffing has prevented some staff from being furloughed, which is what typically would have happened when their departments became underutilized as elective procedures dwindled.

When the need due to COVID-19 increased, you and your HR colleagues collaborated with various department leaders to pull staff that may not have been previously assigned to infectious disease work to the COVID-19 wards.

Organizations are finding additional or new RN employees to assist with the higher volume due to COVID-19 using the following (multiple responses allowed):


That said, in Mercer’s Global COVID-19 survey, 62% of the US healthcare respondents indicated that being able to efficiently reassign employees to other areas was a part of the Business Continuity Plan they would review, perhaps an indicator that there is room for improvement.

Adjusting executive pay

As in other industries, many healthcare organizations have reduced base pay for their top executives. This move has both a practical impact of saving money, but also creates some employee and community goodwill. Typically, these pay reductions are temporary; however, that’s not to say these are actions that should be taking lightly. For executives, base pay ties into the calculation of long and short-term incentives and can have a multiplicative effect. When dealing with executive pay, organizations should consider the perspectives of all their stakeholders, including executives, shareholders, boards, and the broader workforce, as well as stakeholders outside their company such as customers, suppliers, and the public.

Additionally, organizations receiving federal aid under the CARES Act must comply with new compensation limits and other restrictions. Almost all healthcare organizations are tracking losses and expenses related or specific to COVID-19, which will be necessary for federal government financial assistance now and in the future. Organizations seeking emergency relief through the CARES Act should be sensitive when making executive pay decisions.

Embracing digital

Due in part to social distancing initially, but perhaps sticking around due to gained efficiencies, more than 60% of organizations report that they have embraced digital-enabled care models for primary care. Additionally, a smaller amount of respondents indicated including digital models for specialty and urgent care. This change — allowing for telehealth/web meeting appointments with providers — while beneficial to the providers, allowing them to keep seeing patients without having to make significant changes to office settings, is also aligned with the desires of consumers.

Is your organization embracing/enhancing digital-enabled care models? This might include re-imagining the care continuum across virtual and physical models, and across the continuum from triage, diagnosis, monitoring, and engagement. (multiple responses)


Enhancement of medical benefits

A little more than half of the healthcare organizations are covering treatment costs for employees who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Almost all are allowing furloughed employees to remain eligible for benefits.

Additionally, companies are making special efforts around communications to remind employees of existing benefits available to them. Though familiar with the core benefits, such as medical and dental, many employees may never have been in a situation where they considered taking advantage of the Employee Assistance program and other mental health and wellness benefits. A reminder might be just what they need now.

What can we learn?

While drinking from the proverbial firehose, the healthcare industry, supported by an amazing team of HR professionals, has nimbly adjusted to a global pandemic while creating patient care protocols never before seen and caring for employees with the utmost concern for their wellness both at work and at home. No one knew exactly what to do, and there wasn’t a guidebook to follow — they had to act.

As the preceding sampling of actions demonstrates, by keeping the core of the business — patient care — and empathy for employees as guiding principles, healthcare has been able to respond to one of the greatest crises of our lifetime. Perhaps other organizations can benefit from this approach as we all move towards developing our new ways of working and reinvention.

For more information, give us a call at 855-286-5302. Our Mercer colleagues are standing by, ready to help.