Pandemic Planning

With the threat of the H1N1 and seasonal flus, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and other global illnesses highlighting the risk, a growing number of companies are considering the devastating effects that widespread worker absences can have on their operations.

Unlike a natural disaster resulting from a physical or technological interruption, planning for health-related disruptions requires companies to consider how they can reduce the frequency and severity of worker absences, while also considering how they can maintain operations with a reduced staff.

At its heart, planning for a regional epidemic or global epidemic is an extension of a company’s business continuity preparations. Companies have to identify key assets and consider the potential effects of those assets being unavailable for an extended period.

A widespread worker absence could be the result of a global pandemic or of a more benign cause such as a severe cold virus affecting a significant percentage of your staff at the same time. Either way, your goal is sustaining business continuity during the pandemic or outbreak.

An effective pandemic or absenteeism reduction plan will have the following goals:

  • Protecting the health and well being of employees. This may involve education about healthy lifestyle choices and following good sanitary practices in company facilities (especially any food-preparation or break areas).
  • Minimizing the financial effects of widespread worker absences. This could require cross-training workers to fill in for absent colleagues or identifying alternative sources of materials or services from business partners affected by a pandemic.

Planning Ahead

It’s important to identify how your organization would likely be affected if a sizable percentage of the workforce was ill at the same time, and to plan for alternative arrangements. For instance, if 10% of the workforce was out, other employees might be able to absorb the work for a short period. If one-quarter or one-third of your employees were out, that would likely require different plans, and it’s important to know the difference.

Similarly, companies should also consider the effects of a pandemic that disrupts a key supplier or a business partner, such as an outsourced call center or overseas software development team.

Another important step in preparing a health-related continuity plan is identifying reliable sources of information about the early stages of potential pandemics. Government agencies, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, can provide important information and advice not only about emerging outbreaks, but also about good health practices that can reduce the potential effects.

It’s also a good idea to establish a relationship ahead of time with local or county health departments, which will likely be able to provide information about emerging ailments as well as general advice about promoting a healthy workforce.

Healthy Behavior

An important challenge to address in the early stages of a pandemic is getting sick workers to remain home. Salaried workers often feel too valuable to stay away from the workplace, whereas hourly workers may believe they can’t financially afford to be out.

In both cases, it’s important to encourage workers who don’t feel well to stay home, or to send workers home who appear to be sick.

Similarly, public health officials will likely have information or training programs to encourage smoking cessation, exercise and other lifestyle choices that can increase workers’ health and wellness.

To learn more:

Next: Holistic Safety Approach