In April 2009, the influenza A (H1N1) virus appeared in Mexico, causing cases of pneumonia and 59 deaths in Mexico City alone. From there, the virus spread around the globe. Within two months, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the outbreak met the criteria of a level 6 pandemic. 

Influenza A (H1N1) a year later: just a scare, or more reason to prepare?

In April 2009, the influenza A (H1N1) virus appeared in Mexico, causing cases of pneumonia and 59 deaths in Mexico City alone. From there, the virus spread around the globe. Within two months, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the outbreak met the criteria of a level 6 pandemic. By August 2009, more than 1 million Americans contracted the H1N1 virus, more popularly known as the swine flu. Between April and August 2009, 500 people in the United States had died from the illness. While the initial mortality rate was low, governments and health officials were clearly concerned that the local epidemic could become more serious and transform into a global pandemic. 

While the pandemic didn't materialize, it undoubtedly changed employers' philosophies, policies and behaviors surrounding sick leave, disaster preparedness, presenteeism and virtual work. According to a November 2009 Mercer survey, the number of companies expecting employee illness to have a negative impact on business has increased since May 2009. The survey cited that most companies are implementing the following workplace practices as a result of the impact of H1N1: 

  • Making hand sanitizer readily available across the organization
  • Frequently disinfecting common areas in the workplace
  • Educating employees on flu prevention measures
  • Making personal protection masks readily available across the organization
  • Monitoring the H1N1 virus situation by following the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, WHO and other health organizations
  • Developing an employee communication strategy related to the H1N1 virus
  • Informing employees not to come to work if they have flu- and cold-like symptoms
  • Sending employees home who come to work with flu- and cold-like symptoms
  • Setting up telecommuting options for employees if there is an H1N1 virus outbreak in their local area/region
  • Securing anti-viral flu medication (e.g., Tamiflu) for employees and working with health care providers to ensure adequate medication supplies for employees

Such practices are wise, considering that a pandemic could escalate quickly, last for many months and infect 25 percent or more of the world's population, according to Mercer research obtained from public health experts. Many organizations believe that at the peak of a severe pandemic, up to 75 percent of the workforce may be absent from work. 

Riding the next wave 
As we experienced a lull in flu activity in the first quarter of 2010 -- the quietest human influenza period in the past 40 years -- some preparedness fatigue has set in. A third wave of the H1N1 virus has not made entry and other, seasonal influenza A strains, have slowly disappeared. This is similar to how the new virus strains of 1957 and 1968 behaved before they returned for another wave. 

"For those tasked with pandemic planning and preparedness, this lull can create weariness in maintaining support by company leaders," says David A. Smith, founder, Professional Workplace Interaction, Inc., which partners with Ceridian to provide strategic business continuity, disaster preparedness and violence prevention planning to Ceridian clients. "There can be some push back and attitudes that the entire pandemic risk was overblown." 

Smith contends that public health officials had no choice, given the emerging evidence they were presented with, to take the threat of novel H1N1 seriously and take proactive action. Similar to other potential natural disasters, such as hurricanes, preparations, planning and actions must be taken in advance to reduce the risk of loss of life. 

"We are always relieved when a category 4 or 5 hurricane dissipates, is downgraded or changes direction prior to landfall even though much planning, money and effort has gone into risk-reduction efforts," Smith adds. "We must view our preparation for the novel H1N1 virus in the same light." 

Many benefits have been gained from the pandemic planning that has taken place too. Many more companies have conducted a "business impact analysis" to help prepare for the potential of a pandemic. Such an analysis and strong look at operations can benefit companies in other areas of business management, such as efficiency of operations, succession planning and management models. It is crucial for organizations to consider the human impact in all phases of planning through recovery. 

"We must maintain the support of our leaders in this pandemic readiness effort and other business continuity issues," urges Smith. "Pandemic planning should be part of our planning for natural, man-made and accidental disasters that can have a major impact on organizational operations. Readiness in the areas of business continuity, disaster planning and emergency response can reduce the risk of loss of life, reduce the risk to company property and reduce the risk of lost business and revenues."