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Features Employee Wellness
The doctor is in: Employers boosting medical roles amid pandemic


June 4, 2020
By Tara Deschamps/The Canadian Press

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Photo: HRAUN/Getty Images

When public relations firm Veritas Communications in Toronto welcomes its staff back to work, its 65 employees will gain a new colleague in a role the company has never had before: occupational health nurse.

The nurse will administer daily temperature checks for employees, guests and couriers, inspect work areas to ensure they are being sanitized regularly and train staff on health and safety practices.

For a business accustomed to putting out job postings seeking public relations professionals, it’s an unusual position, but one that president and chief executive Krista Webster believes will become common across several industries as businesses deal with COVID-19.

“It is going to become a massive trend that people are going to have to adopt,” Webster said, just after she finished interviewing a candidate for the full-time position. “It’s going to probably seem strange to not have some semblance…of someone in the health-care space.

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Back to work protocols

Already retailers and banks have brought on medical experts or signed up for external consulting services they believe will come in handy as they think about how to keep desks six feet apart, develop elevator protocols and ensure employees have the confidence to return to the office.

Some of those experts have already developed plans for outbreak control, launched mental health resources and offered advice on working from home — a list that could grow as the pandemic rages on.

Dr. Samantha Hill, the Ontario Medical Association’s president, believes medical professionals are ideal for these tasks because they can help organizations cut through confusion around reopening and make sense of the patchwork of policies across cities, provinces and countries.

“I see this as a very natural fit for companies that are trying to yes, protect their bottom line, but also protect the people that they encounter,” she said.

She has spotted a handful of postings from companies, including the gym she frequents, seeking doctors and nurses, but said not every company will have the means to hire such experts.

Information versus a professional

Henry Goldbeck, the president of Vancouver-based Goldbeck Recruiting, predicted most small or medium-sized companies will make do with public health information, but larger organizations are more likely to turn to hire in-house help or turn to consultants and external experts.

That’s been the approach of Bank of Nova Scotia. It beefed up the medical professionals it can rely on in January, when COVID-19 was just starting to spread in Canada and the bank was considering revising its travel policies.

Scotiabank struck a partnership with Medcan, a Toronto company that offers medical advisory services and runs a boutique clinic.

“Rather than having a single staff doctor, the partnership that we have gives us access to a whole team of highly qualified physicians,” said Simone Reitzes, Scotiabank’s vice president of pension and benefits.

The arrangement puts a range of infectious disease specialists and occupational health and safety experts at the bank’s fingertips and has helped Scotiabank as it stationed nurses at its facilities.

Walmart, Telus strategies

Walmart Canada similarly turned to Medcan and its nurses when it needed to administer training for its Wellness Check program, which includes taking the temperatures of all associates at the start of their shifts.

Meanwhile, Telus Communications Inc. has turned to Dr. Dominik Nowak, a family physician also serving as Bank of Montreal’s chief medical adviser.

He’s providing both companies with guidance around travel policies, face mask protocols and what to do if there is an outbreak in the workplace.

Employee town halls have also become a regular part of the job connecting Nowak with more than 16,000 workers at BMO.

At first, Dr. Nowak was fielding questions about best practices for physical distancing and how long the virus lasts on surfaces.

“What I’ve seen is more of a transition now to thinking through how the virus affects us beyond the initial infectious disease part, so how we can support our relatives going through a tough time with physical distancing and staying home and how we can communicate with our children who don’t necessarily know why they have to do school now suddenly from home,” he said.

Health-care professional shortages

Goldbeck and Dr. Hill are unsure how easy it is for companies to find medical professionals like Dr. Nowak for hire these days.

Hospitals, long-term care homes, public health units, telemedicine and contact tracing organizations have managed to staff up tremendously, even after some provinces have reported doctors’ shortages.

Before the pandemic, Goldbeck found general practitioners were typically some of the most sought after professionals, but Dr. Hill said now many have seen patient visits fall, perhaps giving them more time to take on other work.

Veritas garnered at least 100 applications in the two weeks after its nurse posting went up.

Some of the candidates were looking to jump from hospitals or clinical settings, while others have jobs in public health, government, non-profit and even large corporations, Webster said.

She specified that the posting be for a nurse because she couldn’t stop thinking about growing up with the smell of bleach at home and a nurse for a mother, when she was trying to find ways to protect her employees.

“If there’s anyone that I would trust that would have my team’s back it’s someone who thinks about health and safety and sanitization and all of the things that my mom and her nurse friends always did,” Webster said.

Transforming how employers view wellness

Dr. Nowak believes what happened at Veritas is just the start of a trend that could transform how many companies think about their workers’ well being over the long term.

“Organizations are realizing that it’s so important to have guidance from a health perspective, not just for that infectious disease expert, but also for the mental health implications, the economic injury, the social injury, all of these different facets that are deeply intertwined with the pandemic,” he said.

“The pandemic was just the most recent catalyst helping us see that and is really paving the way for how organizations will rely on proactively health expertise through this process, but also through years and decades to come.”