Better safe than sorry

A continuity plan is critical to surviving pandemics like bird flu

Most people don’t spend too much time worrying about disasters that may affect them in the future. However, organizations that choose to ignore the impending outbreak of a flu pandemic are ducking a primary responsibility.

The pandemic resulting from a widespread outbreak of avian flu will affect organizations, suppliers and customers. There are many questions organizations may ask about a pandemic, but “Is this really going to happen?” and “Do we need to worry about it?” should not be among them.

For those not convinced the pandemic will affect organizations in a big way, consider this: In 1918, the flu pandemic commonly referred to as the Spanish Flu killed an estimated 20 million people, twice the amount of people killed during the First World War. Pandemics have been recorded in 1957, 1968 and 1976. Health authorities project that in the next pandemic:

•30 to 50 per cent of the population will experience symptoms;

•fear and caregiving responsibilities will double absenteeism directly caused by illness; and

•a moderately virulent outbreak will last six to eight weeks.

So given the fact a pandemic will affect everyone, why, according to the Conference Board of Canada, has only one out of every 25 Canadian organizations done the work to prepare for it? Some organizations don’t see a pandemic as a real threat, while others think continuity planning is too expensive (see sidebar below).

The road to continuity

Designing a response to a potentially devastating event may seem daunting, but with a systematic approach and expert assistance, the planning process is an opportunity for leaders to better understand their business. Not only does planning ensure continuity in a crisis, it builds organizational resilience, which can pay dividends beyond crisis situations.

“The first thing to consider for a business owner or leader is business continuity,” says Mike Luxton, a Calgary-based consultant and expert in disaster recovery planning. “A business continuity plan is intended to keep the business going under difficult circumstances, be it a contagious disease, a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.”

To continue operations during a crisis, an organization needs to know what its core competencies are, says Luxton. Knowing which processes, capabilities and resources must be sustained through a crisis takes the guesswork out of developing the various aspects of a disaster plan. Strategies and tactics for functions such as communication, staffing and facilities become obvious once everyone is clear about which functions must be kept on “life support.”

“For example, if you understand in advance which functions your organization can afford to ‘close down,’ you could shift staff proactively,” says Luxton. “The alternative is falling into a downward spiral of reactive hole-plugging. So if you know where available people will be shifted to, you have a very good idea of whom to cross-train on what.”

An important aspect of emergency readiness sometimes overlooked is trust. Do employees believe their employers have taken reasonable measures to ensure their safety? Do they trust they will still be paid even if they miss work?

Some employees may stay home because they are afraid or they have to care for someone else. Others may come to work ill because they fear losing pay. But these are responses organizations can better predict, or even modify, if they engage stakeholders in meaningful dialogue.

“People don’t realize how quickly confidence becomes a valuable commodity in a crisis,” says Luxton. “A lot of companies will lose customers and staff, many of them permanently, because a competitor was better prepared to weather the storm.”

A phased framework

Planning is not about how organizations can immediately put in place emergency measures, but how business leaders can make effective decisions on their feet.

“The key is a phased, measured approach that follows the course of the crisis itself, whether it’s a pandemic or a different crisis,” says John Lamb, a disaster response consultant in Calgary. “Our goal is not to get a specific step exactly right, it’s to create conditions for good decisions about when, where and how to change focus and reallocate resources.”

Employee participation

The United Way of Calgary recently completed its own pandemic preparation.

“As a public organization, United Way carries a big responsibility at all times, but especially in the case of a pandemic, because people and organizations depend on the United Way for their own continuity,” says Malcolm Gowie, CFO, United Way of Calgary. “We initiated our planning process the right way by identifying all our stakeholders. From staff and donors, to client agencies, bankers and suppliers, we asked ourselves how a pandemic might impact each of these stakeholders.”

Due to the size of the organization’s scope, the United Way of Calgary decided to use an HR and business consulting firm to help develop a plan by the following quarter.

“And so that our staff would not feel the plan was imposed on them by an external source, we engaged some 40 per cent of them in some way. It truly was a collaborative exercise and resulted in real ownership,” says Gowie.

HR is a key player

Pandemics will affect people first and foremost, so human resources will have a major role to play in preparing for and surviving the crisis. The following are some key areas of concern for the HR professional.

Backfilling personnel gaps: Everyone, from board directors to mail clerks, may become infected or affected once an outbreak occurs. HR will need to identify and track both primary and secondary skills of all employees to ensure that, when needed, others can fill in when critical positions are suddenly vacated or put under stress.

Compensation and absentee policy: Many employees will stay home to care for family members or refuse to come to work out of fear. What is the policy around compensation, leave or absenteeism once the pandemic eases? How do labour laws and collective agreements work under these conditions?

Occupational health: Occupational health providers will have a special role on the front line of an outbreak in monitoring employees’ health, instituting preventative hygiene measures and gathering information for public health officials

Remote work sites: “Social distancing” requirements to slow the spread of an infection mean some personnel will be working from home or at isolated sites. HR officials need to ensure that working conditions are suitable and secure.

Training and exercises: The worst time to find out a plan is flawed is during the pandemic. Since it will affect all employees, awareness and training of personnel in their roles and regular exercises to test the viability of the plan are essential. HR professionals are key in ensuring training and exercises are effective and have minimum impact on regular business.

Cat Hackman is a marketing communications consultant for HR consulting firm Cenera in Calgary. For more information call (800) 387-8797 or e-mail [email protected].

Busting myths
The importance of a continuity plan

Here is what the experts say about the myths surrounding the pandemic:

1. The pandemic scare is just another Y2K issue. While Y2K was a one-time man-made potential disaster, a pandemic is a naturally occurring phenomenon that has hit before and will hit again. Just like an earthquake or volcano, there may or may not be some warning signs. All that is certain is that no one can stop it when it hits. What organizations can do is have a plan ready to deal with it in the best possible manner.

2. The pandemic is coming and organizations must have a specific plan in place to deal with it. It’s not just a pandemic alone that organizations should plan for. Plans may have specific measures to deal with a particular type of disaster, but planning is about business continuity and recovery throughout all disasters, whatever form they take.

3. Business continuity planning is only for large firms. Any business can be hit by a disaster. Whether an organization has five employees or 5,000, if there isn’t a plan in place, the organization will spend most of its post-disaster time trying to get up and running. Failure to plan is planning for failure. With a good plan, an organization can be back up and running quickly. A plan details what needs to be done, or at least provides a skeleton around which to build a response.

4. Business continuity planning will be too expensive. Business continuity planning costs are scaled to the size of the company. It may be that all an organization needs is information on how to plan. Or it may need someone to do the planning.

5. An organization’s crisis plan will cover all types of emergencies, including a pandemic. A crisis plan can be many things. It can be as simple as a plan to handle emergencies like a fire or bomb threat. However, a business continuity plan will ensure the business is ready to go through any kind of adversity, such as relocating the primary business site.

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