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<i>Dear Workforce</i> How Do We Combat Swine Flu Outbreaks at Work

June 3, 2009
Dear Health-Conscious:
 
Your concern about the potential spread of the swine flu virus among your employee population, and its subsequent impact on your business, is appropriate. Though it is small comfort, you are not alone. As of May 13, some 3,352 cases of H1N1 had been confirmed in 45 U.S. states.
Information: Given that this is a new strain of flu virus, some education is in order for you and your workforce. We have found the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be quite helpful. In addition to the latest factual updates on the management of this disease, you'll find links to a host of audio, visual and print media that you can rebroadcast to your employees. The site also contains an entire section for employers.
Policy: One of the first things you'll want to do is review your internal policies vis-à-vis the objective of maintaining a functioning, relatively disease-free workplace.
Specifically, do your current policies further or impede this objective? As a case in point, many organizations have attendance policies that put employees in a disciplinary mode after a set number of illness occurrences. If your policies—and the threat of disciplinary action—potentially coerce an employee to come to work who shouldn't, consider temporarily suspending the automatic punishment provisions in favor of a more reasoned approach.
Similarly, as you point out, people might be induced to work when they shouldn't due to economic sanctions. This might be a good time to reconsider your sick-day policy in general or at least in view of the virus-related cases.
If you truly want people to stay home when they are sick, you simply must remove those things that serve to punish desired behavior.
The simple fact is that people, all of us, do what we are incented to do. We have found a very strong bias among world-class employers for treating employees like responsible adults and then expecting them to measure up. They usually do.
Be advised that any changes of this sort will require some careful communication with your management team to ensure they understand that the organization is not lowering standards or “going soft.”
Facilities: As the CDC has maintained continuously, the exercise of simple hygiene measures may provide the best weapons against the spread of H1N1.
To wit, it just makes sense to do things like making hand sanitizer, tissues and appropriate refuse containers readily available. The same for keeping restrooms well stocked and scrupulously clean. Make sure there is ample hot water for hand washing.
Similarly, you will want to review any policies, processes or practices that put large numbers of employees into close proximity with one another.
Break rooms, fitness facilities and meeting rooms pose an opportunity for the airborne spread of disease. To the extent that you can schedule smaller numbers of people into these facilities at one time, it may make sense to do so. (As for the meetings, you can probably eliminate a lot of them entirely and get a standing ovation for your effort.)
Special measures: Some organizations make private or co-op medical facilities (physician, clinics, etc.) available to their employees.
Indeed, we know of another California employer, the Pebble Beach Co., that has an excellent facility and medical staff for its workers and families. Though a facility like that takes time and real commitment, it is possible to organize private outpatient, in-home or on-site screening and treatment services for your employees pretty quickly.
This is something that can be done on your own or in concert with other area employers. Your health insurance administrator or workers' comp carrier can likely offer guidance and make referrals.
Whatever you do, don't wait, because time is not your friend.
SOURCE: Richard Hadden and Bill Catlette, co-authors, Contented Cows MOOve Faster, May 13, 2009
LEARN MORE: A Workforce Management webcast on preparing for pandemics provides deep discussion and tips.
The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.
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