Hog-tied by Swine Flu

At a recent presentation someone asked if they should have a policy to deal with Swine Flu! There’s been so much excitement in the media that people think they are going to be under siege.

Lots of organisations from Government through to small business support services are wasting more time talking about it, writing about it and pontificating about it than the time that will be lost in people taking time off sick.

Even if we experience a worst case scenario where high numbers of employees go down with flu nationwide – instead of panicking, why aren’t businesses planning in the same way that they do for a Christmas break or to cover their summer holidays?

One wonders if the Swine Flu issue is conspiracy theory; a marketing exercise for the big pharmaceuticals, or storm in a teacup.

According to the figures, deaths from normal seasonal flu in a ‘good’ year, in the UK, are around 4,000 – in a really bad year that can rise to 15,000, Currently deaths from Swine Flu, worldwide, have not yet reached 5,000 – and in the UK just 123 (at the time of writing) and almost all of those appear to have had other health complications that have also had an effect.

The last really big flu epidemic in the UK hit us in November 1999 and ran through to early February 2000. It reached epidemic level right on the Millenium (so if you remember feeling dreadful on 1st January 2000 it might not just have been the champagne) and peaked at 250 cases per 100,000 population. That’s 2 ½ people for every 1000 staff, although we know of companies at the time reporting up to a 50% absence rate! Perhaps some people saw it as an extension of their Christmas break – and that may well happen again. More people end up in doctors surgeries because of what is going on in their heads, than what is actually happening in their bodies – self-induced illnesses are very common!

What can you do?

The big pharmaceutical companies have produced more vaccine than the whole population of the UK needs (big profits are predicted!), so we can be confident that the remedies are at hand.

Swine flu is a mild virus – it does mean that an upset stomach accompanies the usual flu symptoms, but it’s more inconvenient than life-threatening.

The issue that is most likely to affect businesses is people taking sick leave unnecessarily and that can be treated as a normal risk assessment. A standard risk assessment:

  • Identifies the hazards – and these may be different from business to business.
  • Assesses and ranks them – will the effect be disastrous and put you out of business or just a nuisance? What’s going on around you – will transport systems, other services be running slower due to staff shortages, for instance?
  • Creates a plan for what needs to be done to deal with high priority hazards
  • Outlines actions – and there are only four:
  • 1. Transfer the risk to someone else (through insurance or outsourcing activities);

    2. Risk reduction – removing things that cause or contribute to it, perhaps making arrangements for more people to work from home. This includes taking action to alleviate it – such as training and informing staff on personal hygiene and cleanliness (just in case people didn’t learn this at their mother’s knee);

    3. Avoidance – you can’t avoid Swine Flu; some of your staff will get it!

    4. Acceptance – it’s going to happen, so plan for it and get on with it!

    With epidemics the main activities will relate to risk reduction – information, education, clear contingency plans – so everyone knows what to do.

    If you can manage higher absence levels during the school summer break and at Christmas, you can manage absences from Swine Flu. It may be more random, but, if you know it’s coming, you can put strategies to deal with it into practice. It’s not Armageddon – it’s a virus; don’t let it put your business at risk as well as the health of your staff.