H1N1 virus: A plan for the worst

The swine flu crisis may be waning, but that’s no time to let your guard down.

Managing a global epidemic is probably the last thing business leaders want on their minds these days. And although the H1N1 virus seems to have lost some of its virulent momentum, the pandemic potential should give employers the impetus to put together a future plan of defence.

That plan should start with a review of a company’s current corporate health policies, and where they want enhancements implemented during an pandemic, says Ralph Dunham, Toronto-based managing director and business continuity practice leader at Marsh Canada, a risk management company. Niggling details such as whether to stockpile antiviral medication, impose travel bans and deciding who are the critical employees need to be figured out upfront. The biggest question? Should companies stockpile medication. “It sounds simple,” says Dunham, “but there are questions such as: if we do, would it be for all employees? Or only critical ones? How do we decide who’s critical?”

Another issue that often comes up is travel bans. Dunham says there are no hard and fast rules about travel during an epidemic, but there should be something that managers can refer to. Of course, communicating such policies and any changes to employees is vitally important beforehand. For example, if a company decides it’s not going to provide masks to employees, employees should know that they’ll need to buy their own ahead of time.

Such info can be made part of the overall corporate health and wellness plan. “A lot of companies have programs already in place — stop smoking, don’t drink, lose weight, get an antiviral for your family,” says Dunham. And front-line managers should be kept well informed, as they’ll get most of the questions. Dunning also says businesses need to have a monitoring plan that involves more than just listening to the news. Managers should build relationships with local medical officers to understand how they collect and release info about looming epidemics.

One thing that may come back to haunt companies if they haven’t thought their plans through is how equitably they are going to treat their employees. While it’s tempting to treat critical employees better since they make the kinds of decisions that ensure the company operates normally, all members of a team should feel they’re being treated equitably, says Dunham. For example, if one employee is sent home over another because there is less work, the boss better have a good reason for it. “If you classify employees as critical and not critical, that’s OK, but you have to justify and defend it,” says Dunham. As with pandemic planning, it’s always best to be prepared on defence.