More than Eighty Percent of Businesses are Unprepared for H1N1 Outbreak

harvardThe following article summarizes a recent national survey of American businesses conducted by Harvard University that was published on September 9, 2009. The complete survey can be found on the Harvard School of Public Health’s website via a link at the end of this article.

According to a recent national survey of businesses conducted by Harvard University, most American businesses are unprepared to deal with mass absenteeism resulting from a widespread outbreak of the H1N1 virus this fall. While more than 80% of the 1,057 surveyed businesses have heard or read about the potential impacts of the H1N1 virus, few of them have proactively prepared for a severe outbreak:

  • 37% had no discussions about H1N1 after the spring outbreak
  • 45% neither created nor revised contingency plans
  • 56% provided no employee communications regarding an outbreak of H1N1
  • 84% neither created nor revised any HR policies regarding employee absenteeism

Based on their analysis, Harvard researchers concluded that only one-third of businesses believe they could sustain their business without severe operational, financial and reputational impacts if half their workforce were absent for two weeks due to H1N1.

“Businesses need to start planning how to adjust their operations to account for greater absenteeism and to slow the spread of H1N1 in the workplace,” said Robert Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.

As part of their proactive planning, those companies that have revised HR policies (roughly 12%) have focused on sick leave policies and doctor’s notes. Based on recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some companies are planning to waive the need for a doctor’s note during a pandemic and offer additional sick leave for those employees with flu-affected children and/or elderly parents.

“Companies have to prepare now because the flu spreads so quickly there won’t be enough time to make these business-critical decisions when it hits,” said Karen Choi, Associated Industries of Massachusetts’s senior vice president of management and human resources services.

In order to slow the spread of the illness if the outbreak becomes more severe, companies are exploring both staggered shifts and work-from-home options. Still, roughly half of businesses could make these minor changes for at least 1-2 weeks before they ran into significant problems and only a quarter (26%) of those businesses could maintain such a strategy for more than 4 weeks.

With the uncertainty of the H1N1 outbreak this fall, companies must proactively focus on employee safety and business continuity in the event of an interruption.


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