Strong concern about H1N1 pandemic: Survey

Results from a <i>Canadian HR Reporter</i> reader survey on pandemic preparedness

A solid majority (84 per cent) of respondents to a survey by Canadian HR Reporter in late August said they are concerned about the possibility of a flu pandemic this fall — with 22 per cent very concerned. It’s not surprising, then, that only 13 per cent of the 607 respondents are not doing anything in the way of pandemic preparedness, while the overwhelming majority have several initiatives underway.

The most common are the provision of hand sanitizers (80 per cent) and communication to employees (73 per cent). Also popular are business continuity planning (57 per cent) and informational posters (50 per cent), along with the identification of critical and non-critical staff (42 per cent), teleworking options (37 per cent), possible policy changes (37 per cent), masks (31 per cent), staff training (28 per cent) and pandemic-related websites (24 per cent). Only nine per cent said they have stockpiled antivirals.

Many respondents are just starting to put the planning into motion while others relayed a variety of efforts, such as absenteeism tracking, setting up a task force or committee, flu shot clinics, identifying critical and non-critical tasks, scenario testing and the distribution of pandemic kits.

For those respondents who said their company has not prepared for a pandemic, 57 per cent said they are not convinced of the urgency, 31 per cent have other priorities and 29 per cent lack the time. Other reasons include a lack of staff (16 per cent), a lack of funds (11 per cent), the assumption the government will take care of any issues (eight per cent) and the belief health care is a personal concern (eight per cent).

“The economy has overshadowed and demanded most of the company’s attention. To date, H1N1 has been a lot of hype and not much substance. We think of it as just another flu season. If we are wrong, we can shift gears quickly,” said one respondent.

Comments about a lack of pandemic preparedness reveal skepticism, confusion and concern: “Province will lead vaccination program. Don’t believe there will be a serious pandemic.” “We’ve done a bit, but should do more. Issue is lack of knowledge of what an appropriate response is.” “Upper management not convinced of urgency.” “We are a very small company and can easily switch to teleworking if necessary.”

As for the role of HR, almost all of the comments said the department should play a major part in pandemic preparedness, overseeing several initiatives such as employee communication, company policy, management support, benefits administration, staffing levels, salary continuance and cross-training, though some felt HR should not take the lead.

“In our organization, HR is highly involved. This works for us because of the tie to cross-training, workplace health, safety and wellness, staffing issues, employee relations and training implications,” said one respondent.

Here’s a sampling of what respondents think HR’s role in pandemic planning should be:

• “Enforcement of precautions, assist front-line managers in managing absenteeism, help identify and protect critical staff and customers.”

• “Have policies ready to be implemented if required to cover issues such as: salary continuance for employees unable to attend work due to quarantine; cancel vacation leaves if staffing levels drop; rates of pay for employees assigned to other (essential) duties.”

• “Support staff and ensure loss of income will not be an issue for those who are ill or have sick family members for whom they are the primary caregiver.”

• “(Keep) senior managers up to date on current events, legislation changes, government/municipal regulations and any area staffing issues that may be of concern.”

• “Establish online training, help to plan actions for a worst case scenario, work with geographical areas to collaborate planning and train managers for emergency contingency.”

• “Develop their own pandemic preparedness plan to ensure HR services can be continued during a pandemic and reduced HR staffing.”

• “HR definitely should be involved but not the only department. Direction needs to come from the management level and involve other departments such as MIS/IT, operations and health and safety representatives or members.”

• “Filter the constant media drumbeat and put realistic and practical plans in place, in case there is a severe outbreak of influenza.”

• “HR should be a major player in identifying critical tasks of each individual within the departments and ensuring adequate cross-training is completed to ensure business continuity.”

• “Can you tell someone to go home if they look sick or appear to be sick? Are they obligated to obey? What if there is exposure, what are the rights of others, the liability issues?”

• “This is an executive process, not an HR process. HR should not communicate it or even be seen to own this but HR should ensure the company is communicating to all staff and they have the authority to support implementation of policies (such as employees not being terminated for refusing to come to work; not being forced to use vacation; treated fairly; not denied opportunities, etc.).”

• “Establish clear policies on all the ‘what ifs’: What if an employee refuses to come to work even when they are not sick? How will the collective agreements be recognized in times of stretched staffing?”

HR Checklist

Steps to take when planning for a pandemic

• Maintain a current employee information list, including contact details.

• Carry out a risk analysis based on the organization’s profile (such as gender or age breakdown).

• Develop domestic and international travel policies for employees.

• Develop guidelines that allow employees to work in alternate locations (such as home office).

• Develop an essential services list of employees who may receive priority for any vaccines or antivirals.

• Consider developing plans to sequester and isolate essential support staff if necessary.

• Ensure procedures are in place to monitor employee absenteeism or illness related to a pandemic.

• Establish clear policies for employees who may have been exposed to a pandemic virus and are suspected to be ill or become ill at the workplace.

• Establish a policy for employee compensation and sick leave absences unique to a pandemic for sick employees and employees caring for sick relatives.

• Encourage employees to get vaccinated for seasonal influenza and the 2009 H1N1 influenza when vaccines are available.

• Offer opportunities at work for influenza vaccination. Consider granting employees time off from work to get vaccinated if not offered at the work site.

• Cross-train personnel to perform essential functions so the workplace is able to operate even if key staff are absent.

• Be prepared to allow workers to stay home to care for children if schools are dismissed or child-care programs are closed.

Sources: Canadian Chamber of Commerce/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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