Swine Flu: What Employers Really Need To Know

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Expert Perspective by Grahall’s Robert Cirkiel

With all the media attention around swine flu, many employers are asking what they can do to prepare.  Robert Cirkiel shares his suggestions.  

A lot has happened in the past week regarding the Swine Flu outbreak, but in the life cycle of a virus one week is not a very long time. Things can change quickly. In fact, this flu snuck up on us rather unexpectedly.

As I write this, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that it could have been worse. The bad news is that it can get worse. And, the fact that the media has moved on to other stories of the day is not an indicator that all is well, merely that the fear level is subsiding.

I can write at length about the actuarial aspects of this thing but they overlap with the epidemiological side and that has been covered pretty well by the media. The key here is that over time this strain of N1H1 can intensify, retain its current form, or peter out. Sometimes, such as in 1918, the flu is mild in the spring and re-emerges in the fall more virulent, which is when the worst of the damage is done. Sometimes, such as 1976, it becomes a non story quickly (other than the fact that the vaccine killed more people than the flu did – more on that later.) Either way this new strain becomes a permanent component of the “soup” that is our world.

The debate about the flu has been interesting and is about to become more so as it will affect the national debate on health care reform and immigration, both of which will affect employers. So what are the lessons learned so far as they relate to employers?
· Employees want to know what is going on.
· Employees want to see their employer do something.
· Employers need to have sound work site policies in place regarding pandemics, and illness in general.
· Multinationals have additional, travel related issues.

Ironically, news spreads in the workplace just like viruses. The thing about these kinds of flus is that if people do common sense things regarding sanitary habits, their risk are greatly diminished. Individuals can’t avoid contact with the virus, but can minimize its impact by following the basic rules of hand washing, not sneezing into the air, not touching the face, eyes etc. after touching an object, and keeping up the immune system (vitamin D, omegas, avoid sugar, minimize stress, etc.) Employers have a role in supporting and maintaining a clean workplace and also in stress reduction. You cannot keep the virus out of the workplace, so don’t pretend that you can.

How an employer reacts sends important messages to the employees. Too much intervention of the wrong kind can actually feed and acerbate the productivity loss that often happens when something worrisome occurs. Think of how the employees behave when a major snowstorm or hurricane is predicted. Work comes to a halt and is replaced by looking out the window. For the professional doomsayers, this is their moment to shine. (These people are often not the best performers, by the way, but that is a subject for another day.)

Too little intervention and the employer may be seen as lacking sensitivity. I recall during the week after 9/11 in NYC that some employers engaged their employees in the rescue effort and how that had a positive impact on their environment. Those companies returned to productivity more quickly and were perceived as the better places to work. Those who worked for companies that did nothing saw the opposite result.

Employers need contingency plans for a pandemic. This week was if nothing else a fire drill for the real thing that is sure to happen eventually if not this go round. What are the work-at-home options? Who is essential? What advice, if any should employers impart? What information will be available from the health insurer? As for the latter, rely on the insurer where possible and try not to give medical advice. Be careful about encouraging vaccinations and directing people to the hospital. You’re only exposing the organization to legal problems.

Be fast. Be first to the trough.  There could be scarcities of supplies,
government funding, etc.  Don’t be left without.

Think through you business contingency plans. What would be compromised or jeopardized? Could your servers accommodate all the work-from-home computer traffic?

Could your emergency day care providers handle the overload if schools close? Walk through EVERYTHING!

Be wary of the health impact on your key performers. Many of them are in their 30s and 40s which is the age cohort most adversely affected by pandemics (not the very young and very old as is the pattern with typical flus.)

When employees are sick they should stay home, period. This is true not just for pandemics. The studies that support this are numerous, consistent, and conclusive. Sick employees in the work place reduce productivity and profitability.

As for travel, there are lessons to be learned from Asian companies who have been dealing for some time with SARS, avian flu, etc. Restrict travel to the most affected areas. Much work can get done by teleconference and other electronic means. It’s the 21st Century. Make sure your group health insurance program has good foreign travel coverage. If it doesn’t there are good supplement policies in the market place and they are a must because the key lesson learned this week is that early treatment is the key to quick recovery.

As things unfold I’ll continue to offer observations and advice if necessary but let’s hope I won’t need to. Email Robert Cirkiel at robert.cirkiel@grahall.com


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