Health

HR might be on the front line in the battle against monkeypox misinformation

As monkeypox cases rise throughout the US, experts say HR needs to brace for workplace impacts.
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· 5 min read

As the monkeypox outbreak accelerates, some employers are beginning to take notice—and action.

Håcan Anderson and Carolyn Ng Cohen, representatives from H&M and Macy’s respectively, told HR Brew that their leadership teams are closely monitoring public-health resources to guide their workplace health and safety policies. Public-health experts interviewed for this piece hope other employers will follow suit. They said that while the risk of contracting monkeypox at work is typically low, employers shouldn’t ignore the virus.

“You have to have a proactive plan so you’re not scrambling if one of your employees gets infected,” said Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

What’s the workplace risk? The CDC reports the current strain of monkeypox spreads through close physical contact or, less frequently, by touching “objects, fabrics…and surfaces that have been used by someone with monkeypox.”

Adalja said employees could contract the virus at work through exposure to contaminated materials but noted that not all “biologically possible” transmissions will drive the outbreak.

“It’s one thing if…someone has monkeypox, and they sleep in a bed, and then you sleep in that bed afterward. That’s prolonged contact of linens,” Adalja said. “We’ve seen that kind of transmission can occur, [but] I don’t think it’s a major risk for somebody who works at JCPenney and has to restock clothes.”

Still, Clare Rock, associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, thinks it would “be such a shame” if lessons learned from Covid-19 weren’t “brought forward and adapted” to help contain monkeypox.

She said the contact tracing, sanitation, and prevention principles that help protect workers from Covid could help prevent monkeypox transmissions. In higher-risk industries, like healthcare settings or spas, Rock recommended workers ask about monkeypox symptoms in pre-appointment questionnaires and wear gloves when handling linens or have “very immediate access to alcohol-based hand sanitizer.”

Facts > fiction. Rock advised that employers consider educating their workers “even before a case comes into the workplace,” in part because stigma currently associated with the virus could complicate workplace reporting. So far, monkeypox has mainly been transmitted between men who have sex with men and has been incorrectly described by some as an STI.

DaShawn Usher, director of communities of color and media at GLAAD, told HR Brew that monkeypox stigma “may not always be visible and it may not always be verbal.” He worries both workers who are open and out at work and employees who have not come out could feel the ripple effects.

In his opinion, monkeypox stigma could make LGBTQ employees hesitant to report infections to HR. Alexander Borsa, a public-health researcher and doctoral candidate at Columbia University, who said he has friends who have contracted monkeypox, agreed.

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“It can be really intimidating for someone to disclose this to their colleagues…knowing that could carry a risk of stigmatization…[or] the risk of judgement about your sexual life or your sexual orientation,” he said.

To minimize stigma, Michelle Strowhiro, an employment attorney and partner at McDermott Will & Emery who recently authored workplace guidance on monkeypox, said that it’s “incumbent on employers to present information from a factual basis to dispel rumors that might circulate in the workforce.” This communication, she said, should explain what the virus is, how it spreads, and how employees can monitor themselves for symptoms. (SHRM released an example memo that its knowledge advisor, John Dooney, told HR Brew follows this guidance.)

Should rumors persist, Strowhiro said HR should continue to “monitor and enforce their policies against discrimination or harassment.”

“To the extent that employees are…creating a hostile environment, it's incumbent on employers to take proactive action to stop that,” She said.

Handle with care. To encourage employees to report infections, Rock recommended keeping disclosures “within HR…[so] there’s not a wider spread of that employee’s health information than is absolutely necessary.”

Each expert stressed the importance of having a plan in case employees get sick and have to isolate. In an ideal world, employees would work remotely while isolating, but not all jobs permit such flexibility. Roughly 20% of US workers have no paid leave, and the majority of those who do are eligible for nine days or fewer—short of the average two-to-four-week length of infection. In those cases, Strowhiro said employers should take a page out of their Covid-19 policies, offering paid time for testing, vaccination, or sick leave.

Above all, Borsa said to remember that those who contract monkeypox deserve to be treated with “dignity and respect.”

“At moments early on [in Covid-19], it was very easy to judge people who got it by saying, ‘You’re being irresponsible,’” Borsa said. “We just need to remember that even if [monkeypox] feels far away from whoever we are…one day we might be in the same position and that we would want to be treated with dignity and respect.”—SV

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SusannaVogel1 on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Susanna for her number on Signal.

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