November 2020 | Point of View

Safe and efficient: Implementing wellness checks to bring people back to work

Wellness checks offer yet another layer of safety as employees begin to head back to work. Here’s how we recommend implementing them.

Our new COVID-inflected reality means discussions of “healthy workplaces” have moved far beyond the realm of snacks and step counter challenges. A central question on business leaders’ minds these days is: What can be done to maintain a healthy, confident, agile work environment in and out of the office?  

Most companies now have strict policies in place prohibiting anyone from entering facilities if they’re symptomatic—and requiring them to leave immediately if they develop symptoms while at work. At their most basic, wellness checks complement these existing policies and measures (like risk profiling) a simple, daily yes/no screening for symptoms to determine an individual’s fitness for reporting to the workplace. As a CDC-recommended procedure, these screenings help establish a first line of defense in assessing employee exposure to COVID-19 and their risk of transmitting the virus.

Wellness checks can be administered in a number of different ways, and it’s important to weigh the unique needs and capabilities of your organization when implementing any new compliance program. We’ll review several different methods for administering wellness checks and discuss the considerations and tradeoffs inherent to each one.   

Wellness checks with SMS/text

While each method has its own advantages and disadvantages, our view is that SMS/ text-based programs are the most simple, straightforward, and effective for the vast majority of organizations. More and more companies are moving to text as a safe, secure, and direct method of communication. Even in healthcare, organizations are using text to interact with patients and gather data in a clinically-sound manner. An NIH study found that healthcare institutions were effectively using text services to address diabetes control, smoking cessation, and adherence to therapy schedules. It concluded that texting is a potentially effective clinical tool because it’s safe, effective, ubiquitous, and easy to use.  

Text-based wellness checks work like this: Employees receive a text each morning requiring them to answer a question such as, “Are you experiencing symptoms today?” with a simple “Y” or “N” reply. Responses then bump up against back-end logic, and replies are issued indicating whether they are cleared to come to work.

The benefits of a text-based system are clear. No additional software updates or extensive training required. Maximum accessibility and ease of use. And it can be seamlessly integrated into existing workplace safety management platforms and operations. Organizations can also easily push messages with further assistance, information, and feedback to employees (or AI-driven chat services) depending on answers. If an employee indicates that they’re symptomatic, for instance, auto-responses can provide guidance on testing centers, hospitals, and general care.  

One potential downside to consider with texts is that employees will need to use their personal phones. This may provoke some hesitancy, especially as more states start to create rules for employees using personal devices for work—like California’s new reimbursement rule around personal cell use. 

Still, we believe texting is the way to go, especially as you consider the evolution of the technology’s intelligence with AI and ML and its “stickiness” as a mode of getting information to people and allowing them to interact quickly.

But it’s not the only option. Here are three other avenues to consider using:

Another method some are reaching for is email. Prior to being cleared to enter the workplace, employees would respond to wellness check emails delivered to their inboxes or would be required to send in responses on their own (without first receiving requests) to a predetermined set of questions. Like with text-based methods, no new tools or systems are required and the centrality of emails in our everyday lives means familiarity with the format can be reasonably assumed, eliminating the need for any extensive training.  

For email to work well, the process needs to be as simple as possible. For example, an auto-generated email can send a static, single question email that asks employees “Do you have symptoms?”—while prompting employees to respond with a yes or no. Crucially, the system needs to automatically capture and store the responses, and be capable of sending proper replies.  

Email checks may not be well suited for every type of workforce—for example, in manufacturing where employees may not be in front of screens all day. Other disadvantages include accessibility (many people have at least two email accounts, one for work and one or more personal), volume (the average professional receives upwards of 120 emails per day), and ease of use (simply responding with a “Y” or “N” could require as many as nine steps).

Phone systems may also be used. They’re direct, have the potential to be automated, and might even be preferred by some employees over text or email. There’s also a bit of flexibility with this method as responses can be provided either verbally or via numeric keypad numeric (i.e. “Press 1 for symptom-free”).  

Yet, like with emailing, this method is more cumbersome and time-consuming than texting, with potential wait times to get someone on the line and the reading out of automated messages or prompts. What’s more, response data may be harder to aggregate and act on, and younger workers might be prone to screen unknown numbers. Also, implementation could require the purchase of a new system if manual calls aren’t an option and autodialing/IVR capabilities aren’t already part of an organization’s operations.

Phone apps, either custom or pre-built, are also an option to consider. Employees would install the app and respond to daily wellness questions. Data is then accessed through reports and dashboards in a system like Salesforce’s Work.com.  

From a data collection, integration, and information security standpoint. there are some distinct advantages—minimal integration, separate interface, greater security. The drawbacks, however, are meaningful: Requiring every employee to have a smartphone, having options for both iOS and Android users, training employees on how to use the app, and bumping up against a crowded app space and a real sense of app fatigue.

Assessing your needs and picking an option 

Ultimately, sorting through options and making a choice of how you’ll administer and manage wellness checks should happen swiftly—this cannot be some months-long process, which is why we’ve provided a brief summary of what’s available, how it works, and what we think is best. The main considerations are your organization’s unique needs and capabilities, to understand your employees’ preferences, and ensure that you’re looking ahead to the future for how you’ll engage and monitor wellness at your organization over the longer term. 

A wellness check program is not only good for your employees but also offers an opportunity to open your organization’s own digital front door just a little wider. This is one of the distinct advantages of SMS/text-based programs: it’s one of the most flexible, adaptive ways to lay a foundation for more employee engagement and it’s the simplest solution that will work for the most people.  

At West Monroe, we’ve been working with a range of companies to help them develop back-to-work policies and procedures—most primarily our own organization. By taking a bit of our own professional medicine as we grapple with a problem we’re all facing, we’ve had the opportunity to apply our human-centered approach to product development and organizational alignment to our own workforce safety measures. On the strength of this experience, we’re looking to help other business leaders evaluate and implement the wellness check option that fits their organization best – and can make their employees feel safe in these uncertain times.  

Considered one of the top healthcare experts in the country, Jukka Valkonen has a longstanding reputation for continuously challenging the status quo and testing what’s possible. He led the care delivery transformation work at a large payer network that contributed to four consecutive years of record revenue, and his reporting on Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set received recognition from the NCQA. Prior to joining West Monroe, Jukka was the chief health and innovation officer and co-founder of Jiseki Health, Inc., a venture-backed healthcare company focused on using advanced technology to provide better access and care. 

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