Pandemic Influenza - The Hard Reality

The following provides an overview of the salient aspects of a pandemic influenza on corporate or government personnel welfare and on their business continuity.  The discussion provides examples of visible leadership at the executive level as well as some tangible prevention actions. This process of preparedness builds institutional well being at very little cost.


Pandemic influenza is not a matter of if, only of when.  Conservative projections of a 30% reduction in workforce will significantly test a business’ preparedness to protect staff health and to mitigate infections.  The 2006 BC Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Plan: Managing Pandemic Influenza, A guide for B.C. Industry and Commerce (Ministry of Health, February 2006 Edition) clearly states:


Depending on the nature of next pandemic influenza virus, the rate of spread and consequences could exceed anything we have encountered in the last century. The disease could spread easily, resulting in high rates of employee absenteeism. Viral infection and associated complications could lead to prolonged illness and death among a large portion of the population, and traditional health services could be overwhelmed by the demand for urgent care. Illness and death will have an emotional impact on family, friends, and colleagues.


Further information is given on expected impacts in the commerce and industry.  One of the primary impacts will be for businesses to expect that employees will become ill, and some may even die. 


Employees will look to their executive for leadership and protection from the pandemic’s effects. This includes measures that go well beyond minimizing exposure to the virus to those actions that truly create a safe haven to work and a message of caring for employees.


A business also must meet their legal obligation to protect employees at the workplace. For example, those businesses that required one or more occupational first aid attendants may be out of legal compliance if no attendant is on-duty.  The reasons for reduced first aid resources during a pandemic may be that some or all attendants: 


• are ill;

• may refuse their duties due to real (or perceived) unsafe first aid arrangements, or

• combination thereof 


The consequence of not having first aid is that the business is now an “unsafe workplace” and its employees may feel vulnerable.

Organizations should also be prepared to deal with the loss of critical infrastructure, such as electrical power, transportation, and telecommunications.  This compounds the affect of direct employee absenteeism. Extended loss of capability in any of a number of integrated functions could ultimately lead to business failure.

A Commitment to Employee Wellness is Essential to Business Continuation:


For effective business continuation during a pandemic, employee wellness - both physically and emotionally - must take the highest priority.  The consequences of not effectively addressing this issue are disenchanted / disenfranchised employees that will not be motivated to continue the business of their employer. To alleviate this consequence requires executive leadership in providing a vision - such as "The Work Place will be a Safe and Secure Haven from Pandemic Influenza". Such a vision must in turn be supported by executive direction and messaging on the strategic steps and resources (equipment, training, people) required to fully address a pandemic influenza.  


Furthermore, the direction and messaging must be strong and substantive to overcome apathy in emergency preparedness: Apathy = Complacency + Thinking Someone Else Will Do the Job.


The normal demands of a business often distracts from both emergency preparedness for pandemic influenza and business continuation, in general.  Commonly, work in pandemic influenza and business continuation is done on the "corner of the desk" without executive monitoring or oversight.  The resulted is often no business continuity management plan or an influenza mitigation/employee wellness program. Management oversight is essential to ensure the business achieves due diligence in both areas.   The goal is to not to instil fear, but to promote understanding and reassurance that the company is fully apprised of the situation and have a commitment to put resources to emergency preparedness.  


Opportunities to Demonstrate Leadership in Pandemic Influenza Preparedness:


There are many opportunities to demonstrate leadership to mitigate the effects on influenza on both employees and the business.  The 2006 BC Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Plan states: 


Measures to increase social distance and implement infection countermeasures in the workplace will slow the spread of the disease and allow timely access to antiviral medications. Electronic extensions of the organization, including web access and e-commerce, will allow business transactions to continue while reducing the risk of infection.


Measures must include attention to the smallest detail of preventing infection such as, but not limited to:


• installing automatic gel-sanitizers and paper-towel dispensers in the washrooms;

• having a protocol for use of washroom facilities to clinical-level standards;

• providing hand cleaner to guests on entering the work premise as well as for each employee workstation for sanitizing their computers, desks and phones

• limiting the number the of people in elevators and separating people at meetings to create a safe space;

• cleaning protocol for sanitizing committee rooms after each meeting; and

• providing enhanced resources and procedures for first aid care of chronically or acutely  ill employee(s) during a Pandemic.


Of critical importance is a need to foster a cultural shift in employees' attitude related to both work ethics and personnel hygiene that - in a pandemic influenza environment - could significantly reduce the risk of infection and hence business disruption.  On the former note, employees have to practice an almost clinical level of personal hygiene and be made accountable for not complying. On the latter note, most employees typically have a strong work ethic to be at work, even when ill.  This would not be acceptable during a pandemic influenza.  


A shift in employee work and hygiene attitudes takes time, constant messaging, practice, monitoring, and enforcement. It may take at least a year after standards have been established to see change in hygiene practices.


Strategic Steps towards Preparedness:


There are a lot organizational structures in place to achieve emergency preparedness and business continuation, but preparedness needs strong executive direction and diligent oversight. Strategic steps towards initiating pandemic influenza preparedness include:


1. establishing a vision and strategic objectives pertaining to pandemic influenza preparedness and business continuity;

2. assigning an executive to champion the cause;

3. developing an employee communication and awareness program

4. retaining the issue of influenza and business continuation on the executive agenda(s)


There are two fundamental reasons to begin now:


1. there needs to be time to allow a cultural shift on how employees view illness relative to their work ethics and a shift in personnel hygiene habits to a high “clinical” standard before Pandemic Influenza is evident in North America


2. there will be a high demand for limited capital equipment such as automatic hand-gel dispensers when a pandemic occurs.  Contingency funding and procurement of required resources in advance will reduce the likelihood of delayed delivery or unavailable resources.


Concluding Statement:  


A safe haven is critical during a pandemic influenza to achieve employee sense of security and well being and in turn to ensure the continued business of a company or agency.




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EnviroEmerg Consulting

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