Employers prepare for worst

Swine flu has organizations reviewing pandemic plans
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/19/2009

It’s early days for the onset of the H1N1 flu virus — also known as swine flu — in Canada but many employers have already started communicating with workers about the health risks and the possibility of a pandemic. Those organizations that still lack pandemic plans should start now, say industry experts.

The plans are important for more than just pandemics. They work for any kind of emergency, such as a terrorist attack, to help cope with the potential for high absenteeism and disrupted operations, said Diane Champagne, a Montreal-based principal for the health and benefits business at Mercer.

“Especially in the economic times we’re in now, employers can’t afford to have a high level of absenteeism when they may have already laid off people and may have just a sufficient number of people. It’s really making sure your people can continue,” she said. “Someone who doesn’t have a plan now should be thinking about one.”

Those creating plans should think about specific policies, such as employees staying at home, changes to travel plans and prevention measures, such as washing hands and keeping the workplace clean.

“That sort of thing employers could put in place quickly,” said Champagne.

But there is no “boilerplate” approach, she said, because every organization is different and it depends on the industry, the size of the organization, the geographic reach and locations.

“Doing a preparedness plan does take some time because you have to think about all the policies you have to put in place, your backup systems, your critical paths and all that.”

Lessons from SARS outbreak

Blakes law firm already has a formal process in place for such an event and the SARS outbreak in 2003 helped inform the protocol, said Mary Jackson, chief officer of legal personnel and professional development at Blakes in Toronto. Thus far, the law firm has monitored the news about the swine flu and sent out an e-mail with suggestions on how employees can help prevent the virus’ spread.

“It’s finding a balance between taking the right precautions and being cautious and, on the other hand, not inflaming fear,” said Jackson.

“You get so much news and information about it — that in itself raises the concern. It’s important to show employees you care. Obviously we all look at things differently because of all the communication in the world. I think you have to respond.”

The best time to plan is, of course, when there is no problem, but that goes against human nature, said S. Len Hong, president and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

“This to me is a wake-up call. We actually had the luxury of a lull between SARS, Avian flu and now to get ready, but we’d better not get too many wake-up calls before we get into action. So now is the time to start doing things, start planning, start preparing employees, start preparing your business,” he said. “Unfortunately, they do come and go so we should consider pandemics a normal business consideration and plan for them.”

How Scotiabank, L’Oréal are handling outbreak

The health and welfare of employees is a top priority for Scotiabank, which is monitoring the situation and has sent out an executive letter to employees reinforcing proactive measures individuals can take, said Cory Garlough, Toronto-based vice-president of global employment strategies at Scotiabank. The company also has well-defined business continuity plans to ensure it can support customers should an unusual event occur, he said.

“These plans have been constantly evolving over the last several years and have been tested by the widespread power outage that occurred in 2003, SARS in 2003 and other events,” he said. “We continue to refine and build on our strategies to ensure that we are as responsive as possible during a work interruption.”

L’Oréal Canada is also monitoring the situation closely and keeping employees up to date through internal communications that relay information and recommendations put forth by health authorities such as the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“We also encourage employees to remain vigilant and invite them to visit the organizations’ websites for additional information on any precautionary measures they can take to protect themselves,” said Teresa Menna, manager of corporate citizenship and internal communications at L’Oréal in Montreal.

Never too late to start

Despite these examples, one-half of Canadian companies with 500 or more employees have no pandemic plan, according to a December 2008 survey by GlaxoSmithKline.

One-third do not intend to create one and only one per cent of those companies with a plan have included the 15 key components recommended by authorities and experts, which include minimization of direct interaction among employees, identification of key employees and critical functions, extra stock of critical supplies and factoring day care closures and transportation disruptions into absenteeism projections.

There has been a lack of a sense of urgency, said Champagne, though the SARS crisis really was a wake-up call to a lot of organizations. Probably the most important part is the communication, ensuring employees have credible, up-to-date details on what to do and what not to do, said Champagne. Otherwise, they may start talking and spread false rumours, and things could get out of control.

“That’s probably the most difficult part to manage, people’s reactions and attitudes, everybody has different values,” she said. “What you can’t control are people’s feelings and emotions when faced with a situation like that.”

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