As the coronavirus continues to spread beyond China and Asia, Americans are increasingly concerned not just about the potential negative impact it could have on their health, but also about the implications for their personal finances and the state of the U.S. economy overall, according to new research released by Prudential.
The survey, which was conducted over the past week just as new outbreaks of COVID-19 began to emerge, also reveals that Americans see employers as having a dual role to play in addressing risks associated with the virus, both in protecting their health and well-being and as trusted providers of information about the disease and resources to help manage its impact.
Health concerns and money worries
According to the research, more than two in five American adults (43%) say they are concerned they will personally contract coronavirus. A similar proportion, 45%, is concerned about an outbreak that requires quarantines and limits their ability to work for several weeks.
Despite a low incidence of the virus in the U.S. to this point, many Americans have already begun to change their day-to-day habits and behaviors. For example, one in five American adults say they are avoiding public spaces with large crowds, such as movie theaters, restaurants and shopping malls. Fifteen percent are avoiding public transportation and 12% report staying home from work if they are feeling sick.
Survey respondents are likely to view disease outbreaks that affect significant numbers of people as a cause of financial stress or anxiety (28%) just as much as they are to be the possible cause of another financial crisis or recession (30%). Yet, 54% say they are not prepared financially to manage a contagious disease outbreak that requires quarantines and limits their ability to work for several weeks. Fifty-two percent say they are not well prepared financially for an unexpected accident or health crisis that requires them or a member of their household to be hospitalized for several weeks.
Meanwhile, a fourth of Americans say they are considering buying more life insurance as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, while a similar number are considering buying disability insurance. Slightly more, 28%, are rethinking their investment and retirement savings plans.
“Uncertainties in the wake of crises like the coronavirus underscore the need for preparedness, emergency savings and income protection,” says Jamie Kalamarides, president of Prudential Group Insurance. “Employers can play a critical role in not just making these options available to employees, but also in making sure employees know they are available.”
As we have seen this week, financial markets are responding with alarm to concerns about the virus’s impact on business and the economy. Prudential’s research also found rising concern among American adults over potential losses in their investment or retirement accounts. Forty-five percent of survey respondents say they are concerned about such losses, up 13 percentage points from the beginning of this week.
Role of institutions, including employers
As the U.S. prepares for this next stage of the outbreak, a majority of Americans surveyed views institutions, both public and private, as responsible for protecting the public during this kind of potential health crisis. More than eight in 10 American adults consider public health organizations such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention responsible for managing public safety, followed by federal, state and local government (74%). More than half of those surveyed (54%) believe that employers also have a responsibility.
What’s also striking is that Americans say they trust their employers (45%) as much as they trust the news media (44%) for information about crises such as the coronavirus outbreak.
“Communication is key,” says Dr. Sharon Smith, Prudential’s chief medical officer. Smith says there are three key things employers can do to help support employees: (1) prepare for needs and questions; (2) communicate regularly and often; and (3) ensure consistent and accurate messages.
Preparedness includes coordinating business continuation plans and quarantine procedures.
Communicating to managers, employees and even vendors across multiple channels on a regular basis is also important. Consistency is also critical. Consistent messaging avoids confusion, she notes.
“Paramount to success is a health emergency team that has representation across the company. The goal is to provide a safe environment that supports both employees and the business,” says Smith.
As of this week, 38% of those surveyed report that their employer has not taken any action in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Among those who say their employer has taken action, 24% said they are being encouraged to wash their hands regularly. Beyond that, 22% say their employer is requiring sick employees to stay home, 19% said their employers are distributing hand sanitizer and 17% are reportedly encouraging employees to clean their desks and workspaces more often.
Polls were conducted on behalf of Prudential by Morning Consult between February 20–21, 2020, and February 25–27, 2020, among national samples of 2,201 and 2,026 adults, respectively. The interviews were conducted online, and the data were weighted to approximate a target sample of adults based on age, educational attainment, gender, race and region. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
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