These are some of the helpful insights from the 2 day Pandemic Planning Conference sponsored by the Conference Board of Canada, in Toronto:
1. SARS - Toronto has had a "dry run" so to speak, in preparing for a pandemic because of their experience with SARS. Health Care workers were among those most heavily impacted by this disease, and the session on Mental Health during Response and Recovery states that of those who had recovered from SARS (the vast majority), more than 50% had long lasting psychological impact.
This suggests that as part of your pandemic planning you will want to have conversations with your Employee Assistance Providers to see if they will be abil to provide support services during and after a pandemic.
2. "Presenteeism" - is the practice of coming to work when you are ill. A Decima study showed that 79% of Canadians go to work sick. You can begin to plan for a pandemic now by starting to change employee health habits. Frequent hand washing and clearning surfaces are the two most effective areas to focus on, but having people stay at home and NOT come to work when they are infectious will be a major part of your plan to manage the pandemic.
3. Retirees - people who have recently retired from your organization, are a good source of people you can ask to return and fill in for people who are ill during a pandemic. Include them in your pandemic planning BEFORE the pandemic hits. Make information and supplies available to them that are being dispensed to staff. In this way you are much more likely to have them willing to return and assist in a time of staff shortage that might reach 40%.
4. Most presenters at the conference stressed communication, communication, communication. Companies who had successfully weathered the SARS event laid their success to the amount of communicating with staff that they did during the event. Ontario Hydro (who runs nuclear plants among other things), would send out messages two or three times a day on some days, to keep the staff informed. Studies have shown that staff look to and trust information that they get from their employer (if there is a trusting relationship between employer and staff) more than they trust media. This means that you will have to have dependable communication channels for everyone working for you.
5. Privacy Issues - Personal privacy issues will probably come up during a pandemic, and one has to consider individual rights vs. the rights of the whole. Ordinarily, organizations may not disclose health problems of employees to anyone - but what do you tell people in your organization if the person working next to them is ill with the flu? This issue should probably be checked with your corporate lawyer prior to a time of pandemic when it will probably be impossible to reach a lawyer in a timely fashion.
6. Incident Control Room - Most organizations that have to plan for emergencies and business continuity planning that deal with things like fire, floods, etc., will want to re-think the value of having a central incident control room. People will want to maintain social distancing during a pandemic, and a central room with phones, faxes, computers, etc. that are used by everyone has a high likelihood of spreading viruses. How will you ensure that people in a critical incident room are not going to infect one another, thus taking out the very people you need most?
7. Force Majeure - Speakers from law firms stressed that a pandemic would not fall under Force Majeure clause in contracts that you have (this type of clause excludes liability from non-performance) unless it is specifically mentioned. This means that ALL contracts should be checked. As well, a pandemic event is probably non-insurable (again, check with your Insurance people to see what advice their company is giving).
8. Ethics - Ethics is a huge issue for the medical profession but will also play a part in businesses as well. Companies may have to make difficult decisions in choosing who to ask to perform certain duties that may be hazardous - and what action they will take if staff refuse this request.