For now, don't count on much vaccine: Time to step up your efforts to protect your employees

(CIDRAP Business Source Osterholm Briefing) – It's a race right now! And it's between the H1N1 virus and our long-awaited vaccine. Unfortunately, as I write this column, the virus is winning. So will your employees' best defense against the fast-moving virus ultimately win out? Possibly. But don't count on it.

What does that mean for your organization? In short, plan on functioning without the benefit of much vaccine—and brace for more illness and rising absenteeism. And as I have discussed before, if the virus undergoes any substantial genetic change, the situation could change at any moment. Remember to keep your response proportional to the severity of disease; it's your best strategy.

The current lay of the land

I'll save a thorough analysis of the H1N1 vaccine production and distribution dilemma for another column. For now, suffice it to say the vaccine supply has been overpromised and underdelivered. But we've always known that a plentiful supply of effective vaccine was a big variable. No surprise there. And with the severe cutbacks in public health, school systems, and the healthcare system over the past decade, the gaps in our ability to effectively distribute the vaccine should have been apparent as well.

Meanwhile, we're seeing evidence of illness on the rise throughout most parts of the country and the Northern Hemisphere. Will the trend continue? Is this a pandemic wave about to crest? Or is this pandemic like the one in 1957 which had both fall and winter peaks? I wish I could give you an answer. I can't, and neither can anyone else. But I can suggest that you take steps now to protect your employees to the best of your ability and with the understanding that, outside the workplace, much is outside your control.

I realize that some of these steps may seem like no-brainers, others may challenge very fundamental policies, practices, and customs in your organization, and some may seem out of the realm of financial possibility. But I urge you to give each of them serious consideration if you truly want to protect your most precious asset—your employees. And I'll offer some ideas gleaned from some savvy business leaders who attended the 2009 CIDRAP Summit.

1. Insist that sick employees stay home until they are not infectious

I'm sure we've all been guilty at one time or another of showing up at work a little sick. Few of us would be where we are if we hadn't pushed past a little nasal congestion or an annoying cough to meet important deadlines. But this is different.

True, thus far the H1N1 pandemic for most people causes illness that is like seasonal influenza. But for some people, including some of your workforce and even essential employees, H1N1 illness can be extremely dangerous. We don't fully understand why yet. But anyone with an influenza-like illness should not be exposing colleagues to what may be an unpredictable pandemic influenza virus, no matter how mild the symptoms may be.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people stay home until at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever (100º Fahrenheit or 38º Celsius) or signs of a fever (chills, feeling very warm, a flushed appearance, or sweating) without the use of fever-reducing medicines.

You're going to have to model this behavior yourself if you don't want to give the impression that employees should do what they see rather than what you say.

If you decide not to take this step, be sure to let everyone know that your company will not be following CDC guidance so there is no confusion, prepare for employee-relations issues, and know that a consequence may well be greater absenteeism than you expected.

2. Ensure sick workers can stay home without fear of being penalized

This is probably the hardest of the recommendations. But trust me, organizations who have adopted step 1 are figuring out how to make step 2 possible. As one human resources (HR) executive said during the summit, policies are designed to be big and broad and hard to change; however, protocols based on those policies can be flexible.

Here are some of the ways organizations are tackling this step:

  • Allowing employees to exhaust paid time off (PTO) hours and go into negative balances
  • Advancing sick time up to a year of accrual (if, for example, the employee normally accrues 5 days of sick time per year and has used all 5 days, then you may want to consider advancing another 5 days)
  • Suspending point attendance policies during the H1N1 influenza pandemic
  • Providing a special time-off allotment for H1N1
  • Allowing employees to donate leave to others

For more information on this step, please check out the 2009 CIDRAP Summit page, especially the human resources breakout presentations.

If you decide not to take this step, be prepared for a form of "presenteeism" that will surely affect productivity and morale, and know that a consequence may well be greater absenteeism than you expected.

3. Send sick employees home—consistently

The symptoms of influenza hit fast. So an employee can leave home feeling fine and arrive at work in terrible shape. And they'll be extremely contagious at that point. I doubt they'll be able to hide how sick they are or even want to hide it (unless they are worried about financial security). But they may not be able to get home easily. So they need to be separated from healthy employees immediately. All your supervisors need to know they are legally within their rights to send workers home and should apply the protocol consistently.

By the way, this step also applies to you. Don't try to gut it out. As someone with pandemic planning and response knowledge, you are vital to your organization, especially now. So don't risk your own health, or anyone else's.

If you decide not to take this step, prepare for lower productivity and disruption from disgruntled employees, and know that a consequence may well be greater absenteeism than you expected.

Bottom line for organizations

No one knows if your employees will be able to get vaccinated in time to prevent becoming sick from the H1N1. No one knows if the current rise in illness is peaking or will continue to climb. So look closely at how best to protect your employees, even if the steps I've outlined push your organization past its comfort zone. Run a cost-benefit analysis if you need an objective measure. I think you'll find the benefits are likely to far outweigh the risks.

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