Posted by Mark Brousseau
The very real possibility of a swine flu pandemic should be a wake-up call to the many organizations that have not developed a plan to cope with widespread employee illness, according to CCH, part of Wolters Kluwer Law & Business.
To reduce the impact on operations, employees, customers and the general public, it is important for all organizations that haven't done so to begin continuity planning for a pandemic now, CCH says.
Unlike natural disasters or terrorist events, an influenza pandemic would be widespread, affecting multiple areas of the U.S. and other countries at the same time. A pandemic would also be an extended event, with multiple waves of outbreaks in the same geographic area; each outbreak could last from six to eight weeks. Waves of outbreaks might occur over a year or more.
"A pandemic could affect as many as 40 percent of the workforce during periods of peak illness. Employees could be absent because they are sick, they must care for sick family members or for children if schools or day care centers are closed, or they are afraid to come to work," said CCH Workplace Analyst Heidi Henson, JD. "Lack of continuity planning can result in a cascade of failures as employers attempt to address challenges of a pandemic with insufficient resources and employees who might not be adequately trained in the jobs they will be asked to perform."
In 2007, the CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey revealed that only 27 percent of companies reported that they had a plan in place in the event that a large percentage of employees become ill. This was almost a 100-percent increase over 2006, when only 14 percent of companies surveyed had such plans, however, it still represented just over one in four organizations.
"In 2007, there was heightened awareness of the need for pandemic planning because of concern over a possible avian flu pandemic," Henson noted. "That outbreak never materialized; hopefully organizations have continued to develop plans in the meantime."
In establishing a plan to cope with a possible pandemic, organizations must address the phenomenon known as "presenteeism," which occurs when employees show up for work sick. This can have a significant and costly impact on an organization, not only in terms of risking the spread of disease, but also in terms of diminished productivity, quality and attention to safety.
"We all know what it feels like to have the flu - you're not operating at 100 percent, you may not even be operating at 50 percent," said CCH Employment Law Analyst Brett Gorovsky, JD. "The bottom line for most organizations is that it's in everyone's best interest for sick workers to simply stay away, even in normal times."
"Employers need to discourage both the 'hero employee' - and even more so, the 'hero boss' - who try to muddle their way through the day when they shouldn't," said Gorovsky. "Employees are sensitive to the differences between what management says and what it means, and when they see their supervisors coming in sick, they're convinced that's what's expected of them also."
Organizations that build pandemic plans may also help address their everyday presenteeism issues.
"As part of developing a pandemic plan, organizations need to thoroughly examine all their practices and procedures," said Gorovsky. "Many organizations that take these steps will then roll them out as part of their overall HR practices, making sure they're adequately addressing employee illness, whether it's just a mildly severe flu season or a serious pandemic."
CCH recommends the following basic steps to prepare for a pandemic:
... Identify a pandemic coordinator or team with defined roles and responsibilities for preparedness and response planning;
... Identify key employees and key work processes required to maintain business operations during a pandemic;
... Establish (or review) an emergency communications plan;
... Seek up-to-date information from local and state health and emergency management resources; and
... Remind employees to get in the habit of washing their hands often and cover their mouths and noses when they cough and sneeze.
What steps is your organization taking to prepare for a potential pandemic? Post your comments below.