Apocalypse when? Is your business planned for a pandemic?
How much of a threat H1N1 will prove to be is still unclear, but the threat has made some organisations question how prepared they are in the event of an outbreak. How would the country cope – and is the NHS prepared?
HR directors may want to consider putting together a temporary emergency policy which can be put into place quickly, is clear about what employees should do and how they should act in the event of an epidemic or other emergency. This policy could be a valuable asset to develop as it could be kept until needed and brought out in the event of any future incident.
Croner recommend proactive contingency planning, which should form an integral part of the business strategy. This will enable managers to guard against these unexpected events, ensuring that the long term economic health of the business is safeguarded and employees are fully protected. Nasar Farooq, Health and Safety Expert at Croner, believes too many employers take an ‘ostrich-approach’ to disaster planning, especially when it comes to the most common types of threat such as fire, burglary, computer hackers and weather emergencies. “The events unfolding this week show that no matter how thorough the precautions are, disaster can strike a business anywhere and at anytime,” says Nasar.
However, don’t go overboard – even in an emergency, policy must be within the law. “Employers have a keen interest in keeping staff healthy and in containing the spread of a disease, not only for the obvious reason of employee welfare but also to keep business operations running and to minimize liability exposure,” said Don Dowling, International Employment Counsel at White and Case LLP. “However, there are some serious legal implications for multinational employers to consider, including involving existing overseas health and safety committees and worker representatives, providing medical care/vaccinations in the workplace, and imposing travel bans and quarantines – all while weighing these precautions against stringent privacy and employment laws.”
Business Link, the business advice and support service funded by the Government, is encouraging all businesses to consider their business continuity planning and crisis management in the light of possible further outbreaks. “With good planning, businesses can minimise the impact of most crises, including large numbers of your staff potentially being on sick leave,” said Jonathan Hollow, Head of Public Sector Reform. “It’s important to identify what the potential risks are and the possible impact on the business, produce a crisis plan and test it to see whether it works.”
Issues such as sickness absence, emergency leave, home working and work-related travel should all be made clear in the temporary policy, added Helen Clarke, Managing Director of Jaluch.
She continued: “Businesses shouldn’t underestimate the potential impact swine flu could have. If it takes hold in the UK, workforces could be reduced to a minimum due to staff sickness or emergency leave to care for dependents, public transport could be affected making getting to work difficult and external meetings may have to be cancelled to minimise risk.
“At the very least all companies should have a list of emergency contact details for staff and medical contacts should staff become ill.
“Staff need to know how long to stay off if they suspect they have flu, what periods of sickness or emergency leave will be paid and what payment would be for those working part time from home as they recover.”
In the event of an outbreak, how would the NHS cope with the added pressure on resources? Kate Harris is Managing Director of Pulse, a specialist recruitment agency which provides extra staff to support the NHS. In the event of a pandemic it would be natural to assume this service would be under a great deal of strain with the NHS on the frontline dealing with a contagious infection. However, Kate believes both Pulse and the NHS are well-prepared, saying: “Our role in life, whether there is an emergency situation or not, is to support the NHS and other organisations and provide them with staff -doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals, both in terms of longer term partnerships and at short notice.”
Kate explains: “The NHS have to be planning way ahead for situations like this. We work closely with individual trusts. In an outbreak there will be an increased demand for staff: we try to forecast and plan situations but there are also circumstances where the need is here and now. We are very much geared up to responding – we have a regular database of people who are qualified and prepared to go to work. We can call on them, we can also get them at short notice by text or email, and get them into the place where they are needed.”
The NHS having this service on call is not only reassuring, but of course essential. Kate continues: “This is crucial for the NHS to know that they can click their fingers and people will be there. We have the ability to mobilise very quickly. Clearly, we’re going to get an increased demand, and we are positioned to call on extra resources and bring people in. We need to be constantly communicating and making sure the people we send have the appropriate skills. That never changes, no matter what the circumstances.”
HR departments in other sectors may want to take their lead from the NHS and prepare in advance for emergency situations before they occur with a temporary policy which can be put in place quickly for almost any situation.
For help and advice on the current status of H1N1 see Direct.gov.uk. Business Link has collated relevant guidance at www.businesslink.gov.uk/swineflu. For further advice on business continuity planning, call the Business Link National Helpline on 0845 600 9 006.
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