Companies should prepare for potential swine flu outbreak

RP news wires, Noria Corporation

Companies across the nation, many of which have already shed millions of workers through layoffs, could be caught significantly understaffed should the H1N1 flu spread through their remaining workers, warns one workplace authority. Increasing the likelihood of widespread flu-related absenteeism are ineffective sick leave policies and the lack of any emergency planning related to a potential H1N1 outbreak.

 

“A nationwide outbreak will not only impact company staffing levels, but it could cripple an already weakened economy that is just beginning to show signs of recovery, by hindering domestic and international business travel and further impairing consumer spending as wary citizens avoid public places,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

 

There have been more than 9,000 confirmed cases of the H1N1 flu strain reported in the United States so far this year, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control. The World Health Organization puts the number of 2009 cases worldwide at nearly 350,000, with at least 4,100 deaths resulting from the virus.

 

Yet, even as H1N1 spreads globally, many companies are woefully unprepared for the employee absenteeism that could result. In a 2007 presentation, the Department of Homeland Security indicated that in an influenza pandemic worker absenteeism rates could reach 30 to 50 percent due to illness, ill family member care, death, child care due to school closings, and those who stay home simply because they are afraid of becoming ill.

 

“For an employer that has recently gone through a downsizing and already stretched thin in terms of staffing, 40 percent absenteeism in a given month could be devastating,” said Challenger.

 

In fact, a recent survey by the Harvard School of Public Health found that just one-third of companies indicated that they could sustain their business with severe operational problems if half their workforce were absent for two weeks due to H1N1. Only one-fifth felt they could keep operations running if they were staffed at 50 percent for a month.

 

Despite the inability to sustain operations amid high absenteeism, few companies have taken steps to prevent an outbreak among their workers or maintain business continuity should an outbreak occur. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, nearly half (48 percent) of the nation’s private-sector workforce is not able to take paid leave without advance notice.

 

Meanwhile, the Harvard School of Public Health study found that only 35 percent of businesses allow employees to use paid leave to care for a sick family member and only 21 percent provide paid leave to care for children in the event of a school closure.

 

“Having an effective leave policy is critical in preventing an office-wide outbreak of H1N1. You want to encourage workers to stay home when they are sick so they do not spread illness to co-workers. You also want them to stay home to care for sick children so they are not forced to go to school and spread the virus to other kids,” said Challenger.

 

In guidelines for business owners prepared by the Department of Homeland Security, employers are advised to allow employees to work from home if necessary and offer “flexible, non-punitive, and well-communicated” leave policies.

 

“Companies would also be wise to prepare for the worst in order to ensure continuity in the wake of an outbreak. They need to consider not just the possibility of their own workforce being depleted by absenteeism, but also of the likelihood of their suppliers being hobbled. A company might be running at 95 percent capacity, but if a supplier cannot deliver key parts because half of its workers are sick, it could still find itself unable to keep its operations running,” said Challenger.

 

However, a recent poll by LogMeIn Inc., a provider of remote computing devices, found that nearly 60 percent of small- to medium-size businesses do not have a business-continuity plan in place for a possible flu outbreak. A separate survey of 100 senior executives at private equity, hedge funds and other financial services companies conducted by Insite Security found that only 10 percent have plans to deal with the impact of H1N1 on their businesses.

 

“The worry is that the business community will be slow to prepare for a widespread outbreak. For many, the cost of proactive measures is too high for something that may not escalate to pandemic proportion. Unfortunately, many companies may find out the hard way that not preparing could be very costly. Employers will be on the frontline of any outbreak, since business travel and workplaces are major factors in the spread of any virus,” said Challenger.

 

Unfortunately, corporate America’s track record on responding to public health threats is not very reassuring. In 2006, amid growing concerns of a potential avian flu pandemic, a survey by Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, found that 66 percent of mid- to large-sized companies made no preparations. Only 14 percent of companies had “adequate” plans.

 

“Beyond the impact on individual companies, there is the impact on the entire economy resulting from decreased tourism, trade and increased burden on the health care system,” said Challenger.  

 

One need only look at the 2003 outbreak of SARS for evidence of how widespread illness and the resulting fear and uncertainty can impact large economies. It is estimated that the SARS outbreak – which was relatively minor, infecting just 8,000 people worldwide – cost the Chinese economy $18 billion in lost economic activity, including a 65 percent drop in tourism and a 15 percent decline in retail sales. When the virus spread to Toronto, the Conference Board of Canada estimated that it cost the city $1 billion in lost gross domestic product.

 

According to Challenger, workplace preparations to fend off swine flu should include measures to decrease presenteeism and require employees to wear face masks in the workplace.

 

“The best solution, however, may be switching to a predominantly telecommuting workforce. Any employee who can do his or her work from home with a computer and phone should be doing so prior to an outbreak. This will help prevent a flu virus from spreading among co-workers,” said Challenger.

 

“For those who must go to the workplace, such as retail workers and hands-on service providers, companies should enforce a three-foot minimum buffer between all personnel at all times. Employees should also be encouraged, if not compelled, to follow strict hygienic practices, including washing hands regularly and using anti-bacterial wipes to keep their work area, phone, keyboard and mouse clean.

 

“Companies might also provide or subsidize flu shots or Tamiflu, which has been shown to be effective in treating swine flu if taken within 48 hours of contraction,” said Challenger.

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