Work across functions to form Zika response

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Businesses still need to decide who will take ownership of advising employees about Zika

Organisations should be taking the risks posed by the Zika virus more seriously, according to Jose Segade, global mobility manager at Prudential and co-founder of the RES Forum.

The RES Forum’s Global Health Risk survey, seen exclusively by HR magazine, focused on how organisations are responding to the epidemic. However, it only attracted 23 respondents, while an average RES Forum survey could expect between 60 and 70 replies.

“Companies need to take their duty of care very seriously,” Segade told HR magazine, adding that the low number of respondents suggests the virus is “not at the forefront of agendas” at the moment.

While the virus rarely poses a danger to healthy adults it can have very serious consequences for pregnant women. It is believed that the disease may be spread from mother to child in the womb and can cause problems such as microcephaly – which results in a brain that is not fully developed –or eye abnormalities.

Several countries have issued travel warnings regarding the area, and Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Jamaica have advised their citizens to delay getting pregnant until more is known about the virus and its impact on foetal development.

The RES Forum survey found that 8.7% of respondents had advised pregnant women not to travel to affected areas, and 17.39% provided advice to women of childbearing age but did not restrict their travel.

“We don’t want to alarm people or provide the wrong information, but they should be educating themselves on the risks,” said Segade.

David Enser, head of mobility and reward innovation for Adidas Group and fellow co-founder of the RES Forum, suggested that one of the issues facing firms is lack of clarity regarding responsibilities in the wake of international incidents. “It doesn’t have to be a pandemic,” he said. “It could be related to terrorism, or a natural disaster. I suspect many companies would struggle to clearly allocate ownership of the issue.

“Whose responsibility is it? HR? Mobility? There is a lot of room for uncertainty.”

Enser suggested that businesses clarify what responsibilities different departments will take on in an emergency. “Decide who will communicate with who, to ensure your message will reach the right people,” he said. “In a major incident response plan you can decide how you will grade the severity of incidents, and allocate who is accountable and who needs to be informed of what.”

When asked if the organisation provides information on the signs and symptoms of potential pandemics, 17.39% of survey respondents said they rely on HR for the information, 26.09% looked to the travel provider, 26.09% left the responsibility to mobility, and security was selected by 39.13%. Nearly one in five (17.39%) were unsure.

However, even with a plan in place there may be difficulties when it comes to implementation. Enser said giving advice to those who might need it the most could be a sensitive issue. “Saying to a woman ‘are you pregnant, or are you planning to get pregnant?’ could be very prying,” he said.

In the survey, 52.17% of employers said they would not only help any affected staff, but their families too. Andrea Piacentini, head of reward UK & Europe for Standard Life, also co-founder of the forum, said he had seen cases of a shift away from “paternalistic” styles of managing staff working abroad. “There’s a more hands-off approach now,” he told HR magazine.

Segade concluded that business functions should work together to respond. “We need the right advice and we should surround ourselves with people that can offer that.”

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