SARS may irrevocably change HR (Editorial)

SARS is driving home advice that is often ignored — sick workers should stay home.

Look around your own office. Are their people who should be at home recuperating, instead of valiantly sneezing and coughing their way through the day? Does your workplace encourage or discourage people to take the time to rest at home?

The pressure to meet deadlines in a business era of little slack time has staff feeling pressure to work through colds, flus and other illnesses. Not only has this been unhealthy for the employee, but co-workers are too often infected and sidelined, wiping out any contention someone ill at work is helping maintain productivity levels.

With the arrival of SARS, the good advice about sick staff staying home has turned into life and death policy. It’s unfortunate a global health crisis was necessary for attitudes to be re-examined. Workplaces that don’t take heed will find themselves exposed now and in the future.

The impact one person can have on the workplace hit home early in April when a Hewlett-Packard employee ignoring quarantine caused a 10-day isolation of 200 employees and visitors to a Markham, Ont. office north of Toronto.

The case also highlights the need for health authorities to work with employers to fight contamination. In Hewlett-Packard’s case, the employee misled health authority personnel who called twice a day to ensure he was abiding by the voluntary quarantine. Health authorities did not inform Hewlett-Packard that an employee was under voluntary quarantine because of policies respecting confidentiality. Should Hewlett-Packard have been advised earlier that the employee was not to be allowed on its premises?

While the privacy of health information must always be considered, these are extraordinary circumstances, and as the HP case shows, employers and co-workers have needs that must also be protected. Employers should be notified by health authorities when an employee has been asked to stay under quarantine.

And companies across Canada should prepare themselves, lest their communities face the health and economic crisis that Toronto, one of the world’s SARS hot spots, is struggling with.

The right workplace culture makes it easier for organizations to respond to SARS. In addition to ill employees feeling comfortable staying home, companies that have work-life balance programs in place are more capable of maintaining productivity because their workforces are able to continue working without coming into the office. This means developing a mindset that permits working at home and structuring positions to accommodate home work, as well as necessary technical support.

Government should also act to ensure quarantined people receive assistance. Employment Insurance and workers’ compensation are available, but they don’t cover everyone in the workforce. While government may want to avoid the cost of further compensation, without it many people who should stay under quarantine may feel forced to work, and then the health and financial costs will be even higher.

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