Can Businesses Curtail COVID-19 through Employee Education? The Payoff is Worth the Effort

Posted on: April 1, 2020

Employees asking questions during COVID-19 education

The current coronavirus outbreak is a threat not only to individual health, but also to business continuity in organizations everywhere. Keeping employees healthy is critical as nothing gets done without people to do the work. Ensuring your employees do the right thing and follow all proper social distancing guidelines will keep them healthy and working. But in a broader sense, an effective employee education effort around COVID-19 driven from within a business will also help the broader community weather this storm (while doing what is best for the company’s survival). Proper employee education rooted in an understanding of what your employees truly believe could be one of the most effective ways to minimize the impact of the crisis.

How does a business promote healthy employee behaviors in order to minimize these threats? Employee education is vital, but a real challenge is choosing from the wide variety of educational materials available. Employee time is valuable, and education must be targeted, brief, and useful. So how do you choose the best learning strategies and materials?

One method is to approach the problem using a tried-and-true public health tool, the Health Belief Model, or HBM. Designed over half a century ago, it is still in wide use today. Although newer and more complex models may be available, this simple method is great for assessing what to focus on with your employee base. The straightforward nature of the model means you do not have to be a public health expert to use it and thus benefit from more effective education. The approach involves choosing the desired health behaviors you want to achieve and then assessing your intended audience (in this case, your employee base) in terms of its current beliefs. Those beliefs are then analyzed, and the most common misconceptions are chosen for education.

There have been multiple revisions of the Health Belief Model over the past six decades, but the simplest is a four-step process:

  1. Believed susceptibility: Does a person believe that he or she can be impacted by the adverse health outcome?
  2. Believed severity: Does a person believe that he or she will be severely impacted if the adverse health outcome occurs?
  3. Believed benefits: Does a person believe that he or she will benefit from the positive health behavior being promoted?
  4. Believed barriers: Does a person believe that he or she can engage in the positive health behavior without a significant barrier?

To help understand how to use this with pandemic education, let’s take a quick example from the public health world with which you are likely familiar. Wearing a seatbelt in an automobile prior to 1970 was not common. Data from motor vehicle collisions, collected by law and reported to the CDC, showed a high risk of death and permanent injury from vehicular crashes. To design appropriate public health education and interventions, the Health Belief Model was used as an assessment tool. Public health workers asked the following types of questions in their research (example responses that they may have received are shown):

  1. Believed susceptibility to car crash: Does a person believe that he or she could be killed or seriously injured in a vehicle crash? Why or why not?
    1. I’ve been driving for 30 years, and I’m really careful. I’m not going to have a serious crash.
    2. I only drive a few miles at a time. I’m not really worried about a serious accident.
  2. Believed severity of car crash: Does a person believe that he or she could experience death or serious injury from a motor vehicle collision: Some answers at the time might have included:
    1. I know people who have been in accidents, and none of them were hurt badly.
    2. I drive a really big car with steel bumpers. I’m safe.
  3. Believed benefits of seat belts: Does a person believe that he or she can reduce the risk of death or serious injury from a motor vehicle collision by wearing a seat belt? Some answers at the time might have been:
    1. I don’t think a seatbelt will help me. If it’s my time, it’s my time.
    2. I knew someone who always wore her seatbelt, and she died in a car crash anyway.
  4. Believed barriers to using seat belts: Does a person believe that he or she can wear a seatbelt at all times? Some answers at the time might have been:
    1. I hate seatbelts. I feel like I can’t move around if I need to.
    2. I have enough to worry about. Now I have to remember to buckle up?

After reading this historical application of the Health Belief Model, you may think that the answers sound a bit ridiculous. That shows that public health measures worked. The reason that most people would never give those answers now is because of a very effective public health education effort that re-educated the American public. The education was designed by assessing the most common beliefs regarding automobile safety and seatbelts, and then focusing educational efforts on those beliefs and behaviors.

Applying the Health Belief Model to the COVID-19 Pandemic

So how can this be applied to the coronavirus situation by businesses who want to make sure employees are willing to do what is right to stay safe? The first step is to design the questions based on concerns that you are hearing directly from your employees. Here are some sample questions and example responses you might receive:

  1. Believed susceptibility to COVID-19: Do you believe that you can contract COVID-19? Why or why not? (Some answers might include):
    1. I’m under 30 years old. This is a disease for old people.
    2. I’m in my 50s. I never get a cold or flu. I won’t get this either.
    3. I take lots of supplements, and my immune system is great. I can’t get coronavirus.
  2. Believed severity of COVID-19: Do you believe that you could get seriously ill from coronavirus? Why or why not? (Some answers might include):
    1. I am young and healthy. If I get it, I get it. It’ll just be like a mild cold.
    2. I don’t have any pre-existing health problems. I’ll just be off work for a few days—no big deal.
    3. This is just impacting people with kids and old people. If I’m not young or old, I may not even feel sick at all.
  3. Believed benefits of safety techniques: Do you believe that social distancing, hand hygiene, and cough etiquette will decrease your chances of getting COVID-19? Why or why not? (Some answers might include):
    1. Why should I bother? It’s in the air anyway. Everyone’s going to get it.
    2. If I just stay away from coughing people, I’ll be fine.
    3. I have to wash my hands for how long? That’s ridiculous. No one does that.
  4. Believed barriers to implementing safety techniques: Do you believe that you can follow the current suggestions (social distancing, hand hygiene, cough etiquette, etc.)? (Some answers might include):
    1. I have a close extended family with lots of parties and get-togethers. My mother will be furious if I miss someone’s birthday or a holiday.
    2. I’m going to lose my mind staying in the house with these kids! We’re setting up playdates for this weekend with little Johnny’s friends from school.
    3. I really want to go to work. What if the boss is there and I’m not? I really want to look good so I get a promotion this year.

Every one of the sample answers above is a myth that you could dispel with targeted education. But without doing this research, you don’t know what beliefs you need to counter. Such a brief survey could easily be administered via an online survey tool like SurveyMonkey. Whatever method is chosen, it is important to make sure participants know their answers will be completely anonymous. Consider ways to encourage participation, so you get a sufficient sample of your employee base. Without this insight, you will likely waste resources focusing on things employees already know or don’t need to be convinced of.

After you know the most common concerns, you can design your organization-specific education. Facts should be taken directly from reliable primary sources such as the CDC, National Institutes of Health (NIH), World Health Organization (WHO), etc. Provide brief information and a link to one of these sites for more information on that given topic. Ideally, you would conduct another survey after your educational program to determine its effectiveness.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a novel challenge for businesses. Employee education is key to maintaining successful business operations, and it could be critical to stemming the tide across the globe as work communities are important sources of learning. Targeting education to meet the unique needs of your employees’ beliefs is paramount. The Health Belief Model is an easily understood public health tool for assessing health beliefs and targeting your efforts to maximize the impact of your employee education, especially at this critical time when the impact can be far-reaching.

Manage and Respond to COVID-19

At Fusion Risk Management, we are working hard to provide solutions and help companies – whether customers or not – deal successfully with the COVID-19 pandemic. The ideas shared here provide you a simple but powerful tool to make sure your workforce is well-educated and motivated to stay safe, so we can all work together to flatten the curve and get back to the “new normal” with the best outcome possible.

For more ideas on how to help your organization navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure business continuity, you can visit the Resilience Toolkit – Powered by Fusion. This completely free resource contains a growing set of tools to help you, including a crisis management plan template and a community forum where you can share ideas and get questions answered by peers and experts. Also, check out 4 Keys to Navigating Your Business through the COVID-19 Pandemic and COVID-19: A Crisis Every CEO Must Address.

Everyone at Fusion Risk Management sincerely hopes our efforts will speed the recovery of all organizations and help everyone thrive in the new normal that emerges as quickly and as safely as possible.