More questions than answers on SARS

How HR leaders are dealing with the SARS outbreak

Barb Conway, vice-president of human resources at Carswell, punctuated her sentences by rapping her knuckles on her desk.

Knock on wood. On an early April afternoon when she spoke to Canadian HR Reporter about her handling of the SARS situation, no one at this Toronto-based company had yet been affected by this new, nasty virus known as severe acute respiratory syndrome.

She kept on top of the developments and transmitted all available information to employees, including news about two staff members asked to work from home as a precaution. She was receiving full co-operation from the employees, but given the fluid nature of this virus outbreak, she was uncomfortable with the number of questions that remained.

“What do I do if a situation does develop? Do I close down a unit? Do I close down a whole floor? And what about the other tenants in the building? Should I worry about them too?” wondered Conway, adding that the company’s office is in the vicinity of Scarborough Grace Hospital, the outbreak’s epicentre.

Turning to other HR leaders to find out how they were dealing with this situation, she heard similar doubts and uncertainties voiced at other organizations.

Granted, given the changing instructions health officials issued, the level of uncertainty faced by HR managers was more than understandable.

A couple of weeks into the outbreak, organizations were quick to respond, mostly by providing staff with up-to-date information. Of about 400 companies polled by the worldwide consulting firm, Organization Resources Counselors, 82 per cent had introduced SARS education for workers. One-fifth of the companies polled permitted expat staff to come home early, and 43 per cent were actively looking out for employees with SARS-like symptoms. Some managers asked workers to tell the company about suspected cases in the buildings where they lived.

At Hewlett-Packard, management took the initiative early to restrict travel to and from SARS-affected countries in Asia, said spokesperson Angela Rea. The organization set up global teams of medical consultants to keep track of the latest information.

Still, Hewlett-Packard was sidelined when, on Monday, April 7, the company received a phone call from a family member of an employee. This employee was sick and was admitted to the hospital, they were told. He was suspected of having SARS.

The day after, public health officials told Hewlett-Packard to send home about 100 employees and another 90 visitors and contractors who might have contacted the sick worker at the IT processing plant in Markham, north of Toronto.

While unwilling to disclose the details about this employee’s illness, Rea said the organization wasn’t aware that he was a suspected SARS case until that phone call the day before the quarantine order. Asked whether she felt there had been a communication breakdown between public health and employers, Rea said only that public health officials and Hewlett-Packard have been working closely to monitor the situation.

Monica Belcourt, president of the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario, said there are lessons to be learned from this outbreak. One is managers have to get more involved in monitoring their employees’ health and well-being. “When an employee is sick or has been on short-term disability leave, the role of the manager has always been extremely minor. It’s always seen as a private issue between the individual and his or her doctor, and perhaps the doctor who works for the organization is kept in the loop. But the manager is out of the loop.”

In addition, managers will likely adopt a less tolerant attitude toward workaholic employees who show up at their desks even when they’re nursing a cold or the flu, she added. Dr. Mary Vearncombe, medical microbiologist and hospital epidemiologist at Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre, echoed this view.

Reflecting on the reasons why the SARS virus had a broader spread in Toronto than other Canadian centres, she said part of the reason was health workers continued to work when they were sick. In the first weeks, many of those infected were nurses and doctors.

“We all want to be heroes, and we all think we should show up to work even though we’re coming down with something. This should be re-examined. This isn’t limited to health care institutions. So, a plea to everybody: ‘Stay home. Don’t bring it to work.’”

At Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, vice-president of HR Carol Boettcher said most of her time has been spent communicating with employees about the situation.

Some of the workers expressed concern about risks to their own health. Some expressed resistance to using the face masks at all times, and yet others — though only one or two — voiced their unwillingness to work with the public.

“In the cases we’ve had, we’ve been able to put them in work that didn’t involve the public. At this stage, that has been the most reasonable response. Because after you’ve explained it all and they remained uncomfortable, if you had the alternative of having them do other work, it’s probably a good thing.”

She said in a situation like this, it’s important to involve unions and occupational health and safety staff early in the process. She added that it’s also important for managers to spend time working out issues with employees.

“You could put as much as you want in writing, but in the end, you need to have people available to provide one-on-one information and counseling to employees with those kinds of questions.”

One of the lessons Boettcher draws from this is the need to have a thought-out emergency plan in place.

“If I look back, I’d say it’s probably wise to go back now and review our emergency procedures. What have we learned and what should we be adding to it? We should really take the time to review the lessons learned and decide, how do we want to do things differently?”

And while the SARS threat was far from abating at the time she made these comments, Boettcher was already looking ahead to find ways to recognize the “extraordinary effort” of staff who’ve shouldered a heavier workload, in a tense and high-risk environment.

“Certainly a lot of people are entitled to overtime pay and all that, but over and above this, we need to think early on about how are we going to let people feel acknowledged and recognized.”

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