In recent days, the World Health Organization has raised the pandemic threat of swine flu, also known as 2009 H1N1, to a level 5 on a six-step scale.
At this time, companies in Wisconsin and across the country are planning proactive strategies to reduce the likelihood of flu outbreaks amongst their employees and their families and evaluating flu-related policies and procedures. Below is a sampling of methods companies are using to communicate with employees, prevent outbreaks of the virus and manage ongoing business needs.
• Develop an Emergency Incident Management team with defined roles and responsibilities for preparedness and key work processes required to maintain business operations during a flu epidemic.
• Conduct an internal survey of company inventory to calculate how many employees have children that would need back-up care as a result of school closings to estimate the percentage of employees that could potentially be out of the office.
• Monitor updates from national and world health organizations and news sources daily and tailor policies/ employee communications as recommended by the latest alerts.
• Track outbreaks of swine flu within the United States, Mexico, and other countries with corporate ties to monitor how this may affect employees, vendors, branches, etc.
• Restrict travel to areas of outbreak to only essential needs. Ask questions such as, is this a necessity? Can this meeting be conducted online or via phone? If an employee requests not to complete a scheduled trip to an affected area, the necessity of the trip should be reevaluated, and if deemed essential, resources such as prophylactic medications/ masks should be provided to the employee by the company.
• Communicate with customers as to how an outbreak may affect the company’s ability to meet schedules/deadlines.
• Contact your insurance carrier to inquire about coverage available for the vaccination/treatment of employees in times of pandemics, and communicate options to employees. Testing for swine flu may also be covered by insurance, but an employer can only legally require testing for valid business reasons or as standard policy, and by Wisconsin law must pay for time taken from work to complete such testing.
• Prepare a system of sanitation for offices/plants where an outbreak has occurred or is likely to occur.
• Test your company’s remote network and ensure essential company officers and employees can communicate and work outside of their office location.
• Devise an outsourcing system if a branch in an affected area is no longer able to operate.
• In affected areas, consider temporarily closing offices and instead allowing employees to work from home networks.
• Review corporate policy concerning employee leave when immediate members of their families fall ill or their children are attending schools that have been closed due to an outbreak/potential outbreak. If these policies do not include amendments for a pandemic situation, tailor these policies and communicate them with employees.
Ongoing communication with employees is critical. Below are some techniques companies can use to educate employees and promote ongoing communications:
• Continually post important updates and information on the Intranet or through internal communications to keep employees up to date.
• Consider developing an online toolkit with updated information, government resources and employee information.
• Consider developing a PowerPoint or video from the CEO, explaining company policies that can be posted on the company’s website or Intranet.
The following talking points are recommended in all communication vehicles:
• Communicate to employees the company’s policies so everyone is on the same page. Items such as eliminating face-to-face meetings, restricting travel, allowing workers in affected areas to work from home, allowing parents of affected children to work from home, all need to be communicated
• Educate employees with information on how to prevent contracting swine flu as well as what symptoms to look for and encourage them to share this information with their families.
• Encourage employees to wash their hands frequently, maintain healthy diets and sleep patterns and practice good hygiene.
• Have a primary contact on this issue that employees can email or call to ask questions.
Jessica Vollrath is an account executive at Vollrath Associates, a Milwaukee-based public relations and investor communications agency.