Many workers fear losing jobs if flu pandemic strikes


Better organisation planning and communication needed for employees and Business

Nearly 1 in four of working Americans say they probably would lose their job or business if forced to stay home for seven to 10 days during a severe flu pandemic, according to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health. 

The study found that most U.S. citizens would cooperate during the early stages of a pandemic or health emergency. However, after a week to 10 days, financial needs and worries about losing their jobs or businesses would force nearly 25 percent of the survey respondents back to work. More than one-third (35 percent) of the respondents reported that they would still go to work if public health officials told them to stay home but their employers wanted them to report to work. 

“The findings of this survey are a wake-up call for business, that employees have serious financial concerns and are unclear about the workplace plans and policies for dealing with pandemic flu” said Robert J. Blendon, a professor with the Harvard School of Public Health and co-author of the study. While the study found that workers are willing to make major changes in their lives and routines to help prevent the spread of the flu, confusion over how to respond to the crisis is evident. 

“I believe awareness and planning for a pandemic crisis is better than the survey actually shows, but there is still much that needs to be done and questions answered [about] how the federal government will respond, such as when and how do schools, airports and port facilities close when a pandemic strikes” said Ann Beauchesne, executive director of the homeland security division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Beauchesne says several large global businesses have taken leading roles in planning for a flu pandemic. She says the leadership from the multinational corporations makes great sense from economic and public health standpoints. “It’s in these businesses’ best interest to help reduce the economic impact of a pandemic” Beauchesne said. Few are aware of employer plans with only 19 percent of the 1,700 respondents to the Harvard survey reporting that they were aware of their employers’ plans to respond to a flu pandemic. 

Approximately 22 percent stated they are very or somewhat worried that their employer would make them go to work even if they were sick. And half the respondents believed that their company would stay open if public health officials recommended the shutdown of some businesses in their community. Beauchesne believes that awareness and planning for a flu pandemic are higher than the report indicates. She says that awareness about the challenges posed by the flu pandemic is strong among the U.S. Chambers member companies. “Large numbers of employers have conducted training and planning sessions, and I believe workers are aware of the issue and what their organizations are planning to do when a flu pandemic strikes” Beauchesne said. 

However, others disagree and believe the report may understate the problem. The real challenge is carrying the message to the millions of medium- to small-sized businesses throughout the United States and getting them to buy into the notion that raising awareness and planning for a pandemic crisis make good business sense. “The message just has not reached smaller and mid-sized companies” said Philip Deming, president of Philip S. Deming Associates, a human resource and risk management consulting firm in King of Prussia, Pa. “A major natural catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina clearly has shown that it makes great business sense to have crisis plans in place. However, many smaller businesses just don’t have the luxury or resources to shut down during a crisis for a long period of time, So, the economic and financial concerns highlighted in the study make sense.”

Deming is a member of the Society for Human Resource Managements’ Employee Health, Safety & Security Special Expertise Panel and acts as chair of the panels’ crisis management working group. The group of HR professionals is discussing ways to engage small- and medium-sized businesses and get them to buy into the value of developing crisis management plans. “Once employers recognize something makes good business sense, then you get buy-in, and that’s what is needed here” Deming said. Beauchesne agrees, saying that the Harvard report should be a great reminder that the public and private sectors need to prepare for a pandemic crisis.“I believe this report will generate some interest and discussion. Any report or information that helps to keep our focus on this critical issue is a good thing.” she said. 

If you would like to know more about how your organisation can get involved and benefit from working with the Continuity Forum, please email us or call on + 44 (0) 208 993 1599.