Harvard’s Public Health Dean On How Boards Can Battle Covid

Business has been essential in combatting the illness—and will continue to be for as long as the threat remains. Smart advice for the tough months to come.

ESG. Digital transformation. Diversity. Activist investors. Cybersecurity. There’s no shortage of issues keeping today’s directors busy—if not overwhelmed.

But Covid tops them all, striking society and global business in frightening ways, the focal point for every company as management teams and boards still scramble to tackle a new normal. Even as a vaccine begins reaching thousands around the world, the winter wave of infection threatens to overwhelm communities and companies across the United States and elsewhere.

“The good news is there are things that we can do to stop the spread,” Michelle Williams, Dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School Of Public Health told directors in a keynote conversation at our recent Boardroom Summit, our annual cross-industry gathering of public company directors, held virtually this year due to the pandemic.

“The bad news is we are fatigued around doing those things, those things that we can do to stop the spread, mask-wearing, social distancing, avoiding gathering in large numbers and indoor spaces, especially now in the wintertime when this virus thrives in environments that are with low humidity. So we have to double down, redouble our commitment to doing the basic behavioral public health things, to stop the spread of this virus, so that we can get to a place where we can have the vaccines.”

Business, she said has been essential in combatting the illness—and will continue to be for as long as the threat remains. In talking with business leaders throughout the crisis, Williams and Sandy Climan, a longtime media CEO and director with a background in public health, who advises Williams and other CEOs, offer this advice:

Keep Building Trust. Given the mixed messages on Covid safety coming out of Washington and elsewhere, employees have turned to their company leaders as trusted sources of information.

Smart companies are using this time as a way of building trust and loyalty with their workers, which will pay dividends. “Get people in the habit of communicating,” said Climan. “And that has to be two-way communication. It is not one-way, because if it’s one-way people will turn off. It has to be answering questions. It has to be a sense of engagement on the employees.”

Improve Health and Wellness. Covid forced many CEOs and leaders to realize that they have to be more attentive to employees’ mental health, and wellness, as well as the family context that people are living said Williams. Long term, this should extend to other health issues from heart disease and diabetes to the stress of caring for aging parents and kids. Thanks to Covid, “there is a deep awareness about the importance of managing and supporting the most important asset in our business. And that’s our employees.”

Get People Ready to Be Vaccinated. To end the Covid crisis in the U.S. some 250 million Americans will need to receive the vaccine. Yet 40 percent or more of those polled say they are unlikely or unwilling to be vaccinated due to concerns about safety—or vaccination in general. Company leaders, say Williams and Climan, need to speak early and often about the importance of getting vaccinated. In addition, they should make sure workers are offered time off to get the vaccine and see what else they may be able to do to help with delivery.

“If we don’t reach the level where we have enough coverage and protection, we will continue to see the cycle of surge of the spread of this virus. And we will all pay. We will pay economically, and we will pay in our lives and wellbeing,” said Williams. “So it’s an imperative that we all work together to counter and address the vaccine hesitancy issue.”

Should business mandate their workers be vaccinated? On that point, Williams said the research isn’t clear—especially at a time when everything from masks to social distancing is politicized and polarizing. “Currently, there is not a uniform consensus on whether a company should mandate employees doing vaccines,” she said. But it is worth noting that hospitals do mandate shots for healthcare workers.

Dan Bigman is Editor and Chief Content Officer of Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive, Corporate Board Member, ChiefExecutive.net, Boardmember.com and StrategicCFO360. Previously he was Managing Editor at Forbes and the founding business editor of NYTimes.com.