5 COVID-era employee health concerns and how colleges are addressing them

A look at what areas higher ed institutions must manage and communicate about related to employee health benefits and sick leave policies during the pandemic.
By: | July 30, 2020
Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on UnsplashPhoto by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash

Just one of many coronavirus concerns that cropped up along with campus closures pertains to employee health. As employers, colleges and universities value a healthy workforce and in March they needed to communicate quickly about what health benefits and policies mean for employees who become ill or need time off for caregiving responsibilities. Messaging evolved from sharing FAQs about current benefits to communicating about preventive physical and mental health care, including new virtual wellness programs for employees. And now, as campuses have begun to reopen, many employees are hearing—or will hear—about health safety measures and policy and benefit changes.

As with every other aspect of the pandemic, there’s no instruction manual to consult for managing questions campus HR departments may have in communicating with employees. Higher ed clients working with Gallagher’s benefits and HR consulting division have lots of concerns about campus reopenings. “We have had virtual coffee chats and roundtables,” says Lisa Spinks, the division’s higher ed leader. “They are seeking guidance on how to reassure employees. It comes down to making sure people are abiding by policies.”

Here’s a look at five areas being addressed and what related actions higher ed officials are taking.

1. Wellness opportunities

Now more than ever, employers are focused on promoting both physical and emotional health. Although common in higher ed, employee wellness programs have generally focused on in-person activity. Nearly half of respondents to a June UB survey said their institutions have launched new virtual employee wellness programs during campus closures—everything from yoga classes to daily health challenges and 1:1 nutrition counseling. Several colleges created web portals to make finding wellness opportunities simple for employees—many of whom have always seen the in-person interaction on campus as a benefit of working within higher ed.

“There’s been a huge emphasis on mental health and staying connected,” says Spinks.

Andy Brantley, president and CEO of CUPA-HR, the higher ed HR association, believes most virtual wellness programs will continue as campuses reopen “since how we gather in groups will need to be different,” he says.

2. Sick leave policy changes

“Stay home if you are sick” is the mantra everywhere. Higher ed sick leave time and accrual options have tended to be generous, and the pandemic has gotten everyone to closely consider how best to manage sick leave on campus, Brantley says. “There’s a heightened level of urgency around employees staying home.”

The months of working remotely have shown that employees are still productive. “Someone can have a minor illness and continue to work from home if they wish,” says Brantley. “This crisis has caused all of us to be much more flexible about how we shape work overall and how we interact with our employees.”

During a recent call with chief HR officers, one Ivy League school administrator noted that this crisis has resulted in all employers having greater sensitivity to the challenges of balancing work and home life, Brantley says.

Spinks knows of colleges offering 80 hours or more of time off if an employee needs to be isolated, even if it’s to care for an ill family member. “I’m not seeing unlimited leave, but I am seeing very liberal policies, allowing people to tap in to extra sick or to vacation time,” she says. In some cases, she’s hearing about these policies getting major revisions.

In the UB survey, 40% of respondents’ employers had updated their sick leave policy since the pandemic, with an additional 10% noting plans to update it.

3. Benefits explanations and updates

In terms of health insurance plans in higher ed, explains Spinks, “benefits have always been very rich, relative to other industries.” In the spring she saw colleges waiving COVID testing fees and some even waiving the costs of care related to coronavirus illness.

Detailed communication about benefits (and staying well) started early, as schools shut down in March, and continued with frequent updates, she says. “Most have been very articulate about it.” More recent communication shared return-to-campus plans and how the college could accommodate employees in high-risk categories.

4. Changes at policy renewal time

With a large percentage of higher ed institutions relying on tuition revenue and/or state dollars to operate, this will be a fall of “huge unknowns,” says Brantley. Budget cuts will result in all benefits being vulnerable. He has heard of campus officials investigating what small changes can be made to benefits while preserving jobs. “Maintaining the status quo is a huge challenge for all of our institutions,” he says.

Many institutions have a January health insurance renewal, Brantley adds.

As Spinks notes, the aging higher ed workforce may be more concerned with health benefit details than millennial employees. Overall, she says, analysts are expecting decreases in health-care costs because of the pause on non-critical care for many people this year.

Campus officials have been hesitant in the past to make health benefit changes, but right now “it’s a matter of existing or not for many institutions,” Spinks says. So she can envision both less benefits offered and an increase in employee cost share.

Higher ed leaders needing to cut costs are looking at “strategies and tactics that have the least impact on faculty and staff,” says Scott Nostaja, the national human capital practice leader and a senior vice president at Segal.

But health benefits have always been such “an important part of the compensation mix,” says Nostaja, who formerly served as chief operations officer for the University at Buffalo. “It’ll be challenging to change those—and be dependent on the individual financial situation of each and every college.”

He anticipates more changes to the operational side of the house, such as process and policy redesigns and new organizational structures.

As any type of cut gets communicated, Brantley advises being open and honest, and explaining the full picture—not just, for example, that health insurance may be changing but that cuts have to be made across the board and health insurance is one element of that, which will allow jobs to be saved. Hence, such announcements have come from the president rather than from HR.


Many consulting firms have developed guidance for employers as they reopen offices. Gallagher’s pandemic resource center, for example, includes a Return to Workplace Resource Hub to help employers create an action plan for safeguarding people, property and well-being.

5. Return-to-work expectations

As campuses reopen, Spinks expects to see continued emphasis on resources, particularly information on well-being and related services available to employees. Institutional leaders should aim to be “a voice of reason and compassion,” she says. “As information becomes available you have to balance your tone in terms of trying to reassure people and being clear about the future as you know it.”

That communication should include explanations of the “new normal” for working on campus, which may well involve temperature checks and/or daily self-reporting procedures related to symptoms or exposure. “The CDC has suggested we’re within our range of employer responsibility to require temperature checks,” says Spinks.

Institutions such as the University of Washington have developed a way for employees to complete an “attestation statement” before coming in to work, says Brantley. According to the university, the enterprise-wide tool, available through the Workday system, was developed in-house. It must be used by all staff, including student employees, academic personnel working on-site, and contractors and vendors working at a UW location.

In sharing information and decisions over the next several months, Brantley says it’s important to remember that all of it is impacting peoples’ lives. “We have to keep that in mind. It doesn’t mean we don’t need to make the decision we need to make. We just have to have that understanding front and center—not just ‘here’s the decision, here’s what we have to do,’ but taking the extra time to make sure we are carefully considering how things are communicated.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

Related: Infographic on higher ed employee health trends