To recognize the transmission of the 2009 H1N1 flu virus across the globe, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the worldwide pandemic alert level to Phase 6 in June and, since then, the virus has continued to spread.
For workplace settings, the spreading virus threatens to interrupt business, create a loss in production, and debilitate the workforce due to many employees falling ill at the same time. As the flu season moves into the winter months and holiday gatherings bring staff members into closer contact, the potential for greater transmission—and more absences—increases.
Typical H1N1 flu symptoms include fever or chills, cough or sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headache, tiredness, diarrhea, or vomiting. The 2009 H1N1 flu, like the seasonal flu, may worsen underlying chronic conditions.
According to Janet Napolitano, United States Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, preparedness is the best antidote to public health threats such as H1N1, especially in the workplace. To safeguard your staff, consider the following strategies:
- Provide resources that promote hygiene, including hand sanitizers, disinfectants, disposable towels, and more, that work to keep surfaces clean.
- Review policies for sick leave and communicate the policies to employees. Emphasize flexibility, allowing workers who have the flu to stay home and away from other workers. Also, plan to have workers stay home if they are caring for a sick family member.
- Consider telecommuting as an option for employees who are equipped to continue their work from home.
- Prepare business continuity plans to cope with absences and maintain productivity. Some health officials may advise “social distancing,” or increasing the physical space between people to decrease frequency of contact and stem the spread of the virus.
- Identify key roles required to maintain operations and key communicators for assignments and functions that may need to be filled by backup personnel. Also, select a staff member to assist those who may become ill.
- Establish an emergency communications plan to put into effect if needed. This should include a list of who is responsible for communicating business status updates both internally and externally.
- Keep employees informed about how to prevent the spread of the virus, what symptoms to look for, and how to protect themselves. Encourage workers to get the seasonal flu vaccine and the 2009 H1N1 vaccine when available.
- Share policies and plans with employees so they are aware of your expectations. Prepare ways to communicate with employees who do not speak English or those with disabilities.
Staff members can take an active role in maintaining their health by washing their hands frequently (with soap for 20 seconds or with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer), avoiding touching their nose, mouth, and eyes, and covering their coughs and sneezes with tissues. In addition, keeping work surfaces, including telephones and computers, clean and avoiding using coworkers’ phones and computers will help prevent the spread of the virus. Of course, a healthy lifestyle including proper diet, rest, exercise, and relaxation is a significant catalyst to maintaining overall health.