How Covid has changed the C-suite’s responsibilities

The pandemic has meant new priorities for top executives, says Mark Parrish, but that could mark a development for the better

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented effect on the world of work, generating a number of trends that are likely to continue long after the crisis itself. Beyond the direct disruption it has caused, where for example many employees have been forced to work remotely because of social distancing rules, there have been major organisational shifts at C-suite level. Notably, many executives have broadened their direct responsibilities as the pandemic has developed, taking a more hands-on approach to mitigate the disruption caused by the crisis. This burden has often fallen on their shoulders because of the urgency with which decisions need to be made, as the C-suite is generally best placed to quickly respond to issues, updating policies in an agile manner to cope with the evolving situation. 

One of the main areas where the C-suite has gained responsibilities is with the health and safety of employees. Recent research from IBM highlights this, as 80 per cent of surveyed C-suite executives reported that they were now supporting the physical and mental health of the employees they oversee. Data from International SOS also shows this: we’ve observed a 10-fold increase in calls to our assistance centre from those at management level, and the number of C-suite-level contacts at client side has also doubled.

It’s clear that C-suite executives are now doing more to ensure that decisions account for the health and safety of staff. Specifically, employees’ personal health issues are no longer seen as separate from business concerns. Instead, the two are seen as increasingly interconnected, with employees being recognised as an organisation’s most valuable assets. 

Given these trends and awareness of staff safety, C-suite executives will need to continue considering how their facilities can be made Covid safe, whether employees are office based, mobile, in retail sites, in manufacturing or working in other industries. This focus on safe facilities may well stay beyond the pandemic, and we’re likely to see similar attention on employee safety in the future, even if the C-suite may become less hands on as the crisis passes.

In addition to the physical health and safety of employees, organisations also appear to be gaining a greater level of sensitivity and understanding regarding mental health issues. Chief health officers (CHOs) in particular are invaluable assets in this field, as their expertise can help businesses understand the best ways to support the mental health of employees. They can also support the HR function, allowing HR professionals to focus on the implementation of a medically informed mental health strategy directed by a CHO, without needing to become experts in the field. Organisations should certainly consider these benefits as a matter of urgency: a recent International SOS survey showed that more than 20 per cent of organisations are expecting mental health issues to cause operational issues over the next 12 months – highlighting the importance of having a high-level employee to deal with this issue.

Beyond the direct health implications of Covid-19, the C-suite is increasingly needing to take additional issues, such as security, into account as the pandemic has affected various geopolitical and economic tensions. It has brought to the forefront the impact and far-reaching repercussions that health issues can have both in the world of work and for society generally. For instance, earlier this year we highlighted that during the pandemic around three-quarters of the security-related requests have been related to Covid-19, as the crisis has exacerbated existing security risks because of growing anti-government sentiment, xenophobia and general social unrest. 

Moving forward, we can expect the C-suite to maintain a continued interest in the issues and responsibilities sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. While executives may take a less involved approach as we exit the crisis, it is likely that the mindset of caring for employee safety and overall workforce resilience will remain. Additionally, the C-suite will be looking for more incisive and accurate data to prevent being caught off guard by the next major disruptive event. For example, HSE professionals are increasingly being looked at to provide sustainability reporting, a trend that will likely continue in coming months and years. Coupling this data-driven approach with agile decision-making capabilities, based on robust and up-to-date actionable insight, will be key for the most effective organisations going forward. 

Dr Mark Parrish is regional medical director for EMEA at International SOS