Expert Perspective by Arlene Brewster, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist
Given the certainty that the swine flu epidemic will reappear this fall and winter, employers need to make contingency plans for their work forces. Robert Cirkeil’s blog on the subject put in reference and link) suggests thorough preparation by employers is necessary to mitigate the pandemic’s effects on their employees. (Click here to link to Robert Cirkiel’s most recent blog on the subject of Swine Flu and find links to his previous blogs).
In addition to impacting productivity, the pandemic will have a psychological effect in the workplace. Companies who handle the pandemic well can strengthen their employees’ loyalty. An event such as a pandemic can bring communities closer together – or drive them apart. Several variables influence those psychological effects, some of which are outside the company’s control. But others, as Robert suggests, are not.
People build a sense of community most rapidly and effectively when faced with an outside threat against which they need to band together. People’s reaction to a natural or manmade disaster or threat of a hostile attack brings out their most fervent sense of community. Reports of disasters are always accompanied by reports of altruistic, generous and brave acts on the part of community members. This behavior is probably hard wired into our DNA. Historically, human beings who have helped each other in response to a perceived threat have survived better than those who did not.
The response to a pandemic, however, may be more complicated. First, it is difficult to identify the enemy: we can’t see a virus. In contrast to a sudden catastrophic event, a pandemic takes a long time to work its way through a population. Heroic actions are more difficult to sustain over an extended period of time.
Second, and most important, the threat of a pandemic can be perceived as coming from within the community (i.e., from sick people) and not outside of it (a natural or manmade disaster.) Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year chronicles the catastrophic breakdown in community in London at the height of Bubonic Plague. Defoe wrote that those who could afford to do so left town. Many families who were left in London often abandoned their sick family members, leaving them to die alone in houses without food or water. Hired workers refused to pick up the bodies of the dead. Although people at the time did not know how infection spread, they followed their sense of survival by staying as far away from the sick as they could.
The psychological impact of the coming pandemic will depend on a number of perceptions: how severe the illness becomes, how well the government and local health care facilities respond, and how readily available people perceive the vaccine to be.
Robert’s suggestions for preparation (read “Swine Flu Update”) make sense both economically and psychologically. The more employees believe the company as actively working to protect their health and welfare, the more a sense of community will be maintained. I would add one more suggestion to Robert’s list — that employers create a strategic communication plan to inform employees of preparations underway. Employers would be wise to schedule small-group meetings that not only inform their employees of what the company is doing to protect them, but also provide opportunities for employees to discuss what they should do, if and when the pandemic begins.
Discussion topics could include plans for getting jobs done with reduced workforces, and plans for maintaining contact and providing help for sick employees and their families. These plans may or may not be needed and may or may not work, but they encourage a sense of participation and efficacy among the workforce. There was a reason why companies who encouraged their employees to volunteer after 9/11 recovered faster than those who did not (see RC blog). The companies who encouraged a sense of community in the larger world were rewarded with greater loyalty to their own company.
Contact Arlene Brewster Ph.D. at firstname.lastname@example.org