Influenza is a viral infection that is typically transmitted through the air via coughing and sneezing. Seasonal influenza (flu season) occurs annually between November and April in North America.
Worldwide influenza outbreaks (known as "pandemics") are also common. Examples of pandemics include H1N1 in 2009 and the deadly "Spanish flu" of 1918 which caused between 20 and 50 million deaths worldwide.
Flu symptoms are usually much worse than the common cold and typically include fever, coughing, fatigue, headache, sore throat, runny nose and in severe cases vomiting and diarrhea. Recovery time varies, but is typically 3 to 5 days.
Due to its highly contagious nature even healthy adults are at risk of catching the flu, and those with weakened immune systems are at a higher risk of complications which can require hospitalization. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu causes an average of 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths each year.
With estimates that between 5 and 20 percent of the population of North America will catch seasonal flu every year the effects on business can be severe, as any business owner or employee who contracts flu can expect several days of symptoms and work absence.
To minimize the impact to your business from flu outbreaks it's obviously best if you have a business continuity plan in place. If you don't have time to develop a detailed plan right now just follow the nine steps below and you'll be well prepared to keep your business up and running through flu season.
Business Continuity Plan for Dealing With Flu Outbreaks
2) Encourage employees to get flu vaccinations when they become available. If your business is large enough, you might even have a flu clinic at your business site. (Note that it is unlikely that the seasonal flu shot will provide protection against flu pandemics such as the H1N1 flu virus). Offer to pay for employee flu shots - keeping your employees healthy saves your business money.
3) Create ways of teleworking for your business. This will make it easier to encourage employees to stay home when they’re ill. "...if one person comes into work sick then cases could quickly multiply to take out a third of the workforce", said Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief public health officer (Pandemic plan help offered to businesses, CBCNews.ca).
Employees who are experiencing flu symptoms but still feel up to contributing might be able to telework instead.
It will also make it easier to make allowances for employees who need time off work to care for sick children or parents.
Note to businesses in Calgary and area: Calgary Economic Development has a WorkSHIFT program to foster teleworking that you may be able to participate in.
4) If possible, prepare an isolation area in your place of business in case an employee becomes ill on the job and can't leave right away.
5) Determine which of your business operations/services are critical and create a deployment plan for other employees to cover these areas if possible.
This is especially hard to do for small businesses, but think of the worst case scenario; how would you keep your business going if you and all your employees were sick with swine flu? If you're a solo operator, do you at least have a person available who can man the phone and reschedule what's necessary? If you're a small retailer, do you have friends or relatives that could pinch hit in a crisis?
6) Step up office hygiene practices.
Ensure that staff is talked to about the importance of proper hand washing and that hand washing signs and instructions are up in all restrooms and staffrooms. (Here's how to properly wash your hands according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.)
Place hand sanitizers (either wall units or bottles) in strategic places and encourage people to use them.
Make sure all office equipment is cleaned and sanitized regularly, especially shared equipment such as keyboards and phones.
7) Develop a communication plan, such as a call tree and a schedule of communications to make sure that all your employees can be contacted in case of a major event such as your business having to close unexpectedly. Make sure key customers and suppliers are also included in your fan out list.
8) Decide what to do if your regular supplies are cut off. Suppliers and transportation companies could be shut down if a flu pandemic causes high rates of absenteeism. How will your business be able to continue operating if this happens? Are there alternate suppliers and/or transporters that could fill in? Will you just delay order fulfillment? If so, for how long?
9. Check out local programs and resources. Your city or town may have programs or resources dedicated to helping businesses deal with a flu pandemic. For instance, the city of Ottawa offers an Are You Ready program which provides information on emergency preparedness while the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce has partnered with a local nursing organization to help businesses facilitate the administration of flu vaccines to employees.
More Details on Planning for a Flu Pandemic
Want to prepare a more detailed business continuity plan for dealing with a pandemic flu? With the support of the Public Health Agency of Canada, The International Centre for Infectious Diseases has developed a Pandemic Influenza Planning Tool Kit for Business and Employers to help small and medium-sized businesses prepare for a flu pandemic. It includes detailed checklists for managing every aspect of your business before, during and after the flu pandemic hits.
The American federal government also offers a collection of resources to help businesses plan for a flu pandemic at Flu.gov.