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Preparing For A Pandemic

By: Alison Schofield

With a possible duration of one to two years and a global geographic spread, it is anticipated that a pandemic would have a severe impact on job roles and responsibilities, workplace absenteeism, and productivity due to the emotional burden on employees. Alison Schofield, of Mercer Health and Benefits, looks at human resource policies and procedures that employers will need to reflect the unique challenges posed by an event of this magnitude.

preparing pandemic

Some in the scientific community say the risk of a global pandemic of influenza is high, a sobering thought for individuals and their families, and for businesses around the world. In the event of a major global pandemic, preparedness and proactive planning will be critical. Although the outbreak of a pandemic is not known with 100 per cent certainty, it is prudent to plan ahead and be prepared. The stakes are high – for both corporate entities and the people who drive them.

Potential For A Pandemic

The World Health Organization (WHO), centres for disease control and prevention, and national governments believe that the world is now closer to another influenza pandemic than at any time since the last of the previous centuryʼs three outbreaks. While there is no certainty that a pandemic will occur, the WHO has warned that the world should prepare itself for such an eventuality. Proactive planning – by governments and the business community – is critical to protecting the health and well-being of citizens and employees.

Since December 2003, there have been 173 confirmed human cases of avian influenza resulting in 93 deaths, a mortality rate of more than 50 per cent. Symptoms range from a very benign, common cold condition to the very severe respiratory infection that resulted in the known deaths. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was relatively benign compared to the possible virulence of an influenza pandemic.

The WHO employs a pandemic alert system of six phases to monitor the progress and development of a pandemic. The alert is currently at Phase 3: “a new influenza virus subtype is causing disease in humans, but is not yet spreading efficiently and sustainably among humans.”

Pandemic Influenza

Avian influenza, or ʻbird flu,ʼ is a contagious disease of animals caused by viruses that normally infect birds and sometimes pigs. The viruses have, on rare occasions, crossed the species barrier to infect humans.

The current outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza are the largest and most severe on record. The virus is now considered endemic in many parts of Indonesia, Vietnam, some parts of Cambodia, China, Thailand, and Laos, despite the destruction of an estimated 150 million birds. Government attempts to halt the spread of this disease by culling infected flocks have been unsuccessful and the infection has spread to birds in key commercial centres in Asia and Europe.

The Rise Of H5N1

An influenza pandemic happens when a new subtype emerges that has not previously circulated in humans. For this reason, avian H5N1 is a strain with pandemic potential, as it might ultimately adapt into a strain that is contagious among humans. Should this adaptation occur, it would no longer be a bird virus, it would be a new human influenza virus, easily spread by coughing and sneezing. Because the virus is new, humans have no pre-existing immunity. Fortunately, the virus does not jump easily from birds to humans or spread readily and sustainably among humans.

Should a fully contagious virus emerge, its global spread is considered inevitable. Given the speed and volume of international air travel today, the virus is anticipated to spread rapidly. Most scientists believe there will be a very short interval between the discovery of the mutant virus that causes the next influenza pandemic and the declaration of a global pandemic status.

The Preparedness Gap

Organizations are beginning to recognize the profound implications if the viruswere to mutate to a strain that would allow people to readily infect others. Mercer Human Resource Consulting recently conducted a survey into how different industries, regions, and countries are planning for a pandemic. Overall, the survey shows a considerable gap between organizational concern about the impact of a pandemic and actual pandemic preparedness.

Preparedness is defined as having a business continuity plan (BCP), a budget for pandemic preparedness, a workforce plan, a crisis management team, and an employee communications strategy. In preparing an organization for the possibility of a pandemic, the human resource implications must be considered, with priority given to health related emergency planning.

Organizations need to prepare for a ʻbest caseʼ and ʻworse caseʼ situation when considering the effect of a pandemic on personnel as well as the subsequent financial impacts.

The Human Resource Preparedness Plan

The primary focus of an organizationʼs BCP will be the ability to forecast the impact of the pandemic on its staff, clients, and suppliers, and on the communities in which it operates. While a BCP needs to be broad and detailed enough to deal with the total impact of a pandemic on an organization, human resource professionals need to look at the specific impacts of such an event on the people in the company.

The WHO predicts that absenteeism rates would be at least 25 per cent of the workforce. This will contribute to social and economic disruption, especially as essential services such as power, transportation, and communications are impacted.

In addition to employees falling ill from the infection, absenteeism will be caused by other factors such as school closures and disruption to public transit as well as travellers being quarantined when returning from a virus-infected region. Employees that remain healthy may become primary healthcare providers for sick family members. And fatalities within family units will contribute to employeesʼ need for time off work.

The effects of a pandemic on the working population will not just be physical. Employees are likely to experience a social contact phobia, a fear of going to work, and of using public transportation. Employees may experience difficulty in concentrating at work, increased anxiety, and irritability. Employees who survive the infection may suffer the emotional burden of depression and survivor guilt, perhaps resulting in further stress-induced absenteeism.

Establish A Preparedness Budget

Organizations need to establish a budget for developing a pandemic preparedness plan. This will address the redeployment of internal resources and the contracting of external expertise as required.

The financial and physical risks that face corporations during a pandemic will intensify for organizations that lack decisive leadership and bench strength. Companies need to develop and implement proactive crisis leadership strategies.

As infection could incapacitate any member of the management team, there must be an identified group of managers who can back up one another. Also, employees need to be aware that they may be called upon to exercise authority in areas outside the scope of their normal job function and bounds of responsibility.

A Crisis Management Team that collectively assumes responsibility for operational decisions will need to be formed. Core activities, processes, and skills essential to the continuance of the business need to be identified. It is vital to identify essential roles, and the people who perform them, then cross-train these employees to ensure these roles continue to be performed.

preparing pandemic

Employee Communications

A critical component of organizational preparedness for a pandemic is developing an employee communications strategy. Should a pandemic occur, the media will provide intensive and often emotionally charged coverage. In some respects, the community is more at risk from an epidemic of fear than it is from the actual virus itself.

Employees will expect their employers to be a source of accurate and timely information on issues that may affect operations and the safety of personnel.

Review Human Resource Policies

It is essential that comprehensive human resource policies and procedures relevant to a pandemic be available, including:

Protection Through Preparation And Planning

While it is not known with 100 per cent certainty that a pandemic will occur, it is known that a significant gap between organizational concern and preparedness for a pandemic exists. It is time for the awareness of the consequences and impact of a pandemic to trigger companies to develop a human resource preparedness plan, within the broader business continuity plan. Organizations need to protect themselves, and their employees, from the risk of a pandemic through rigorous planning and preparation.

Alison SchofieldAlison Schofield is a principal with Mercer Health and Benefits in Toronto.

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