With a potential wide-spread outbreak of H1N1 looming, the US Government released two resources last month to provide preparation assistance: the Report to the President on the US Preparations for 2009-H1N1 Influenza and Flu.gov’s Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to the 2009/2010 Influenza Season.
The Report, provided by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, assessed the Obama Administration’s preparations for this fall’s expected resurgence of 2009-H1N1 flu and outlined key steps officials should take in the coming weeks and months to minimize the disease’s impact. Specifically, the Council made recommendations focusing on leadership coordination, planning scenarios, pandemic surveillance, pandemic response, response barriers, communication and future preparedness.
To provide further guidance for businesses, Flu.gov launched several action-oriented reports for non-healthcare workers including a “Communication Toolkit” aimed at decreasing the spread of the flu in the workplace and maintaining business continuity during the 2009/2010 flu season. In these reports, Flu.gov provided recommendations including screening employees for flu symptoms, arranging alternate workspaces for high-risk employees, arranging social distancing in the workplace, cancelling non-essential business activities, and preparing for school dismissal or closure of childcare programs.
While these resources provide unique recommendations to their respective audiences, both share one common characteristic: preparation is of paramount importance when dealing with a potentially severe H1N1 outbreak. Aside from employee health and well-being, however, organizations must consider how business operations will be affected in the event of a major public health crisis resulting in mass-absenteeism. Organizations should focus on mass-absenteeism beginning with one simple question: “How will our organization respond if employees cannot report to work due to illness, fear, or school closings?” With so many stakeholders potentially affected by the answer to this question (employees, communities, customers, etc.), proactive business continuity planning cannot be overlooked and should focus on:
- Identifying personnel single points of failure which indicate the need for cross-training and knowledge transfer
- Arranging flexible work spaces through telecommuting, staggered work shifts, or social distancing
- Identifying essential business processes both internally and throughout the entire supply chain (e.g., raw materials, suppliers, subcontractor services/products, and logistics) required to maintain business operations
- Communicating with personnel, suppliers and customers regarding changes to business operations as a result of a pandemic
Consistent with Avalution Consulting’s pandemic preparedness consulting approach, organizations should prepare for a severe outbreak by focusing on several key areas in addition to mass-absenteeism:
- Prepare governance mechanisms and processes for implementation, as opposed to struggling with the development and modification of policies as the event takes shape
- Discuss methods of controlling employee fear in the workplace through proactive, recurring communications and awareness techniques, and as warranted, the dissemination of resources to slow the spread of the disease
- Develop assumptions regarding product and service demand, and based on conclusions, develop operational plans to ensure personnel and resources are available to meet stakeholder expectations
While the future impact of an H1N1 outbreak is unknown, proactively adopting basic business continuity principles, including planning and communication, will largely influence an organization’s ability to handle a severe outbreak. Echoed by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, “It is not possible to predict how the 2009-H1N1 influenza virus or the upcoming influenza season will play out, but it is best that we plan and prepare for a resurgence of H1N1 flu”.