How should HR departments handle fears of a swine flu pandemic?
With swine flu dominating the headlines, employers are starting to realise that they need to be prepared to deal with isolated or sizable levels of absence. Only today it was reported that a business sent home a member of staff for a week after he returned from Mexico, in an attempt to protect other employees and pre-empt any symptoms which might develop.
As with any major event which dominates the news, there's always a risk of over-reaction. Sending perfectly fit employees home just to be on the safe side, for example, may amount to a breach of contract if the contract does not allow for it. Suspension is normally limited to specific issues such as disciplinary issues, and on a medical level this action would be contrary to the existing medical advice from the government. The current advice from the UK Health Protection Agency says there is no need for anyone returning from Mexico to be isolated unless they develop flu-like symptoms. According to the official guidance it is only following the development of symptoms that people should stay at home for seven days during the incubation period.
In an ideal world employers should already have developed a business continuity plan which is triggered in events like a flu pandemic, although it is normally large employers who have the time and resources to develop these.
Employers should have a measured, proportionate response in place to cope with any suspected cases which might develop. Any business continuity plan should begin with good communication, so ask your employees to speak to you immediately if they have returned from Mexico or other affected areas and feel unwell.
You should also work out what would be the likely impact of a flu pandemic on your workforce. As will all other health and safety issues you should assess the risk and identify ways of reducing hazards. For example what would happen if large numbers of staff were absent - either because they had developed the flu or because their children's school had been closed and they were unable to find alternative childcare? As part of your planning, you should identify key people and assess if and how their absence could be resourced internally.
It may also be worth thinking about pulling together a database of former or previously-retired staff who could be contacted at short notice to assist on a temporary basis.
If a shortage of people to carry out important roles does become an issue, make sure that resources are in place to train staff to step into their shoes in the interim. Most businesses have facilities which allow home working and remote access which can provide employers with greater flexibility to prevent cross infection. Once all this is in place, the business will be in a better position to deal with an outbreak.
Finally, if this does develop into a full blown pandemic, with high levels of absences, then employees might benefit from support and counselling if resources are available to provide it.
What is most important of all is not to panic. With careful assessment and contingency planning, there is no reason why swine flu should have any more than a minimal impact on British businesses. Even since the avian flu outbreak, which was only four years ago, business technology has evolved at such a rate to enable business continuity from the remotest of locations.
Mandy Laurie is a partner in the employment law team at UK law firm Dundas & Wilson.