Only one-third reported that they could sustain their businesses without “severe operational problems” if the swine flu kept half their workforces out sick for two weeks, according to the survey.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimates that the H1N1 virus has infected more than 22 million people in the U.S. since April, and more than 4,000 people nationwide have died of related complications. The proportion of deaths attributed to influenza already has exceeded what is normally expected at this time of year, with the young hit the hardest, the CDC says.
At the same time, a survey published in September by the Harvard School of Public Health found that the pandemic and resulting absences could have devastating effects on U.S. businesses. Only one-third reported that they could sustain their businesses without “severe operational problems” if the swine flu kept half their workforces out sick for two weeks, according to the survey.
Jennifer Benz, who runs Benz Communications, a San Francisco-based employee benefits communication firm, says many of her clients have begun health education campaigns but have stopped short of analyzing all the issues that could arise from a pandemic.
“It’s very easy to post communications throughout your company, such as washing your hands when you sneeze, but to really look at changing policies is a much different thing,” she says. “It’s a tough business environment right now.”
Many companies may do more if they see absenteeism soar, she says, but by then, it may be too late. “I think a lot of companies have a plan in their back pocket. If their work site gets hit really hard, then they’ll look at ‘How do we respond?’ ”
The flu pandemic highlights the importance of providing robust health benefits, such as more than one or two sick days a year, she says. But ad hoc solutions, such as allowing employees to work from home, will fail if a company hasn’t thought them through by, for instance, providing enough access to laptops and ensuring that computer networks can support large numbers of workers dialing in.
Furthermore, just telling employees to stay home doesn’t help if the company has a weak sick-leave policy or doesn’t provide paid sick time for hourly or part-time workers. “For low-wage workers, missing some days off can mean the difference in paying your rent that month,” Benz says.
In many cases, businesses are opting against more aggressive efforts because of cost and privacy concerns, says Russell Robbins, a principal and senior clinical consultant in the Connecticut office of HR consulting firm Mercer. Unfortunately, it’s easy to dismiss warnings over H1N1 as paranoid or an overreaction, but the truth is that the flu is likely to spread, Robbins says.
“I just keep saying that the only way we’re going to weather through this is if we’re prepared for a crisis,” he says. “In other words, make plans now.”