Monday, 3 September 2007

Preparing for a flu pandemic

The World Health Organisation (WHO) warns that there is a substantial risk of an influenza pandemic within the next few years. This week's Personnel Today features on article on how HR functions are (or rather, are not) planning ahead for a potential pandemic, Employees at risk as businesses ignore flu pandemic planning.

The article features a survey commissioned by pharmaceutical giant Roche which include the following findings:

  • 71% of HR/Personnel managers admit that their company has insufficient plans or are unaware of plans in place to protect their workers and annual turnover from a pandemic strike

  • Only 13% of UK workers believe their employers have HR policies in place for a pandemic

  • 85% of UK workers are concerned that an influenza pandemic would increase pressure and workload

  • 69% of UK bosses think over a third of their workforce would have increased anxiety/stress in a pandemic

  • UK bosses say 37% of UK workers would work at home or stay at home in the event of an influenza pandemic and over a quarter (28%) of UK bosses think that their staff could be off between one and four weeks, which could affect business performance

  • 64% of UK workers think their employers lack a strategy or do not know if their employers have a strategy to cope with a reduced workload

  • 71% of UK bosses predict they will suffer moderate to substantial financial losses due to mass employee absenteeism

  • In the event of a pandemic 38% of UK bosses say they don’t have or don’t know of any communication plans in place for employees and customers. Workers say that figure is much higher with only 19% believing their employer have plans to communicate on a pandemic.

The article also includes some of my comments on these findings. This is my original and somewhat longer contribition to Personnel Today:

There are so many surveys conducted these days, that it is easy to get survey fatigue and quickly pass over the latest conclusions on talent management or whatever it might be. But this survey does deserve attention. It points very clearly to a blind spot in HR’s focus. So much is said and published about the need for HR to reduce its operational focus and become more strategic that it is easy for the function to forget about some of the basics, like covering off key risks. This is particularly important at the moment with ongoing threats like SARS, avian flu and an imminently expected human flu pandemic, not to mention increased risks from terrorism.

HR teams need to plan ahead, considering the introduction of paid-time-off or sick pay programmes for staff who may need to self-quarantine themselves, and of hazardous duty pay for key employees to keep critical operations going. They also need to think about how they are going to continue business operations if employees cannot or will not travel and how they are going to deal with employees working in areas affected by a flu outbreak and who may not be able to return home. They need to prepare a communication plan and think about how communications can be launched quickly, for example, through the use of dark-sites on their intranet (web sites that can be switched on at short notice). If the risk is considered to be sufficient, they will need to educate employees about potential actions as well.

There is a clear strategic role for HR here too. HR’s focus on organisational capability means that it often has a longer-term view of the business than the rest of the organisation. HR can encourage the business to think about the key business issues associated with a flu pandemic, for example, what will be the impact on the company’s goods and services? What will the financial impact be? A good example is a retail store – they may find it difficult to encourage employees to come to work, but customers may be reluctant to visit too.

HR can encourage the rest of the business to set up emergency planning teams in preparation for a potential pandemic or other disaster, and to think about potential impacts on facilities, contracts, insurance and so on. Broader business continuity plans should be developed, and tested against a range of possible scenarios.

Maintaining business operations through a flu pandemic or other emergency will never be easy, but with the right planning, the down sides can be significantly reduced.