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Emergency management experts are encouraging employers to be flexible with human-resources policies, at least as long as the H1N1 threat is in the air.

If the more pessimistic predictions about swine flu come to pass in the coming months, don't be surprised to find your office a lot lonelier than usual.

Employers across the country are being advised to brace for H1N1 scenarios that could sideline as many as one out of every three employees.

Even less intimidating scenarios — which would see absenteeism rates hover around 15 per cent — have big implications for how businesses will manage to stay on an even keel with many employees unable to work.

The problem?

Many businesses simply aren't thinking ahead, and some have assumed this winter's experience with swine flu will be as uneventful as the first wave that struck Canada earlier this year.

"It's not on their radar," said Karen Alexander, the emergency management co-ordinator at Memorial University in St. John's and the owner of a firm that advises companies on how to prepare for crises.

In an interview, Alexander said every employer should prepare for emergencies, including scenarios that extend well beyond a pandemic flu outbreak.

"You need to ensure you have a business continuity plan," she said.

"You have critical services that you need to have kept maintained, and you have to deal with a 15 to 35 per cent absenteeism rate at any given point in time [during a major outbreak]," she added, citing information obtained from federal public health officials.

Chris Gray, a policy director with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said while it's easy to frighten people with doomsday scenarios about a pandemic, it's important for businesses to at least consider all options.

"You need to plan for the worst," he told CBC News.

"It's very difficult for small business. Being in a recession, they're thinking about a lot of things — and obviously the main thing they're thinking about is how to pay the bills and keep afloat in this economy. [But] small businesses, especially, need to be prepared."

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has been taking a lead in promoting H1N1 awareness among its members, including collaboration on a website  that outlines how employers can gird themselves for what could be a serious business threat — not to mention a personal ordeal.

"What do you do if you're the owner-operator and you're sick, and you need to be quarantined for a week?" Gray said, citing just one of the questions employers should ask themselves now.

He said a good plan will address many others, too.

"Who needs to be in your office? If they can't be there, how do you fill that role? Can they do those things remotely, if necessary? Those are [some of the] things that they need to be cognizant of."

Employers should be more flexible with human-resources policies, at least as long as the H1N1 threat is in the air, Alexander said. "At Memorial University, for instance, managers have relaxed their policy on requiring a sick note, and will allow employees to be off the job for a full week without having to produce one.

"If you as an employer are sending them [to the doctor's office] just because you need a medical note, you're not doing anything to contain the spread," Alexander said.

While any emergency plan should involve four generally accepted principles — preparation, prevention, response and recovery — it need not be particularly complex, she said. There are plenty of free and easily available resources that any business can adopt:  "You don't have to reinvent the wheel here."

 The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has developed a checklist for small- and medium-sized businesses to prepare for the impact of a pandemic flu outbreak. Its points include:

  • Updating an employee information list, with full contact information.
  • Carrying out a risk analysis.
  • Preparing domestic and international travel policies.
  • Designating alternate work locations, including home offices.
  • Compiling an essential services list.
  • Sequestering and supporting essential staff.
  • Monitoring absenteeism.
  • Developing policies for employees who might be exposed to a pandemic virus.
  • Establishing employee-compensation and sick-leave policies.

 

Kathleen Bradbury, an adviser with the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers' Council, said business awareness of H1N1 is increasing. She tells employers to develop an emergency response plan that can deal not only with a pandemic, but any hazard that can bring things to a halt. (For example, in Newfoundland and Labrador as in much of the country, the most common crises involve bad weather.)

"You can do all of those things without spending weeks and weeks of planning," she said. "A small business does not need a huge 150-page emergency preparedness plan."

What is essential, she said, is involving staff from the start, and making sure the plan is explained to all employees.

"The best-laid plans, if not communicated, are absolutely useless," she said.

"You have to be flexible enough to deal with things as they happen, but yet structured enough that you have the roots of a plan in place, and everybody's aware of it."

As H1N1 response plans kick into gear, Bradbury said she hopes the preparation plans prove their worth, even if the impact of the pandemic turns out to be small.

"If the outbreak is not as big as we anticipate it to be, people will say, 'I don't know why we prepared for that.' But it's probably the preparation that [will have] decreased the numbers," she said.

John Gushue is a writer in St. John's.