Personal Health Affecting Health of the Economy

Businesses must prepare for widespread major illnesses

For the last number of years, Canadians and Manitobans have basked in the glory of the growing global economy. More and more businesses are exporting their goods and services all over the world. Many have established manufacturing plants and distribution systems in foreign countries. With this has come a burst in international travel as employees and owners arrive in various countries for sales excursions, annual meetings and other business trips. Life is exciting.


The Internet has also helped us explore an international world and it is becoming easier and easier to communicate across borders. In many cases, it is said your message will go around the world in 30 seconds with a push of the button.

At the same time, with the Ebola crisis in West Africa, we are now finding out just how quickly and easily dangerous germs can also travel across the world. So, it was not a surprise to learn of the recent Ebola case and subsequent death of a patient in Dallas, Texas, and the death of a Sierra Leone-born doctor in Nebraska this week. Nor was it a surprise to learn of the nurse in Spain who has contracted the disease or to learn of other health professionals who have contracted the disease and died.

However, what is alarming to most readers is the scope and breadth of people who can be touched by the tentacles of this dangerous disease. For instance, more than one hundred people in Texas were quickly placed under close watch for Ebola symptoms. Spain quarantined several health professionals while several hospital staff were reported to have quit over Ebola fears and a perceived lack of training and resources. The United States and Canada are now scrambling to activate their readiness strategies.

As has been demonstrated, an illness such as Ebola has the capacity to shut down entire economies. Schools and businesses have sometimes been closed as a precaution. In fact, the World Bank is warning of a catastrophic "billion dollar" economic impact if health officials are unable to stem the tide of this dangerous illness. At the same time, we all know the health resources in these West African countries are nowhere near the high standards we Canadians enjoy.

Yet, in spite of high Canadian health standards, viruses such as H1-N1 and SARS gave us a good scare. However, now another virus, EV-D68, a respiratory illness is on the rise and spreading quickly. Not only that, our regular flu season is just starting.

As terrible and devastating as the situation regarding Ebola is, there are many lessons for individuals and businesses to be learn. First and foremost, individuals must take precautions for their own health and well-being, starting with the simple doctor recommended task of hand washing. Believe it or not, most people are not aware there is indeed a distinct method to proper hand washing. And of course, with flu season upon us, it is recommended people get a flu shot.

What about businesses? Are they prepared? Apparently not, according to a study by a leading U.S. human-resource association. This study identified only 47 per cent of survey participants had a disaster-recovery plan, in spite of the many lessons learned through the awful 9/11 tragedy.

Sure, we have fair and reasonable sick-leave policies and we tell an employee to stay home if they're feeling ill. Yes, many of us are placing sanitizing lotion next to the kitchen sink. Severe repercussions on a business from a mass communicable disease are very real. In fact, although you may not recall, Canada lost more than $1.5 billion due to the 2003-04 SARS epidemic. At the same time, 7,000 long-term jobs in the Canada's tourism industry were lost.

So, with this in mind, it's time for business leaders to ask themselves, "Do you have all your bases covered in case as many as 40 per cent of your employees went off work at the same time?" "How long would your business survive?" If you can't answer these questions, it's time for serious planning. In fact, make it a priority before illness hits.

There are essentially six steps to human-resource planning for a mass communicable disease. First, determine who is to be involved in developing your plan, who will approve it and who will act as the backup decision maker. Also, be sure to assign someone to monitor government directives with respect to the illness. As part of planning, examine what might happen to the demand for your goods or services, and at what point absenteeism will affect operations? As well, examine what might happen to your supply chain?

Secondly, re-confirm your core business functions and determine which factors, such as staff roles, services, supplies and equipment are critical to the core functions. What alternative strategies can you identify that could be used during a pandemic? Seriously think about cross-training as many employees as you can, examine your strategies for work delegation and prioritize tasks that can be postponed.

Third, review your human-resource policies for illness and absenteeism because widespread illnesses certainly push the boundaries with respect to normal policies and practices. How will you balance the challenge of sending sick employees home versus lost productivity and even lost wages for those without sick leave credits?

Step four involves efforts to protect your employees. Identify the communicable-disease threat and educate managers, supervisors and employees on the health risk as well as strategies for self-protection. Ensure all the resources needed to contain the exposure are made available. Identify high- and low-risk areas and the staff who work in each. Review your work safety procedures and document your reviews and audits. Offer an on-site flu clinic. If possible, reduce public access to your office and/or reduce employee travel. Seek additional alternatives that will work for your organization.

Step five involves communication and this is absolutely critical, especially if employee fear appears to be gaining ground. Determine what will be said, who will say it and when you will give ongoing updates. Develop a strategy for employees, your customers as well as your suppliers. Choose multiple communication strategies. Use your bulletin boards, your intranet, email and even tweets.

Step six is all about recovery. Know that recovery can take anywhere from 18-24 months. Keep in mind recovery in this case will not simply be about physical operations, information technology and other equipment, it will be more about people and their mental health. Determine what steps are needed to resume your normal operations and give serious consideration to on-site counselling for employees.

Workplace absenteeism is a major concern these days irrespective of a mass communicable illness. However, when a crisis such as a widespread major illness does hit our businesses, we need a plan to deal with it.

Source: International Centre for Infectious Disease Control/LBG presentation, 2007, Controlling Exposure, Protecting Workers from Infectious Disease, WorkSafe BC, 2009. Disaster Planning and Recovery, SHRM, 2012. Ebola economic impact in West Africa could be catastrophic: World Bank, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 8, 2014.

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