As the number of confirmed cases of swine flu in the UK increases, the Department of Health has warned employers to expect repeated waves of one in four employees being off work in the event that swine flu reaches a pandemic. This could cripple many businesses, particularly during the current recession, and lead to considerable staffing issues.
In this alerter, we consider some pro-steps employers can take to protect their business from the effects of swine flu.
Forward planning can help, no matter how unpredictable the effects of swine flu might be. A sensible place to start is for employers to consider whether they have a crisis management or contingency plan in place. A risk assessment could also be undertaken to gauge:
- whether employees are likely to encounter members of the public who are displaying symptoms;
- where contact with people displaying symptoms is possible/likely, whether any measures can be taken to minimise contact;
- the duration and frequency of contact with members of the public.
It is important that employers identify the basic requirements for the business to function effectively. This should include an assessment of the minimum number of employees required to run each division. Employers should also familiarise themselves with their sickness policy, absence policy, travel policy and home working policy and consider whether amendments need to be made to these. Care should be taken to ensure that the implementation of any plans and procedures does not unlawfully discriminate.
When assessing the relevant policies and procedures, issues to consider include:
- in what circumstances can employees be required to stay away from work?
- how will such absences be treated?
- is there a centralised reporting system for sickness absence?
- what are the return to work procedures?
It is important that the policies and plans enable staff to keep healthy and minimise the risk of exposure, whilst keeping business operations running and disruption to a minimum.
Communications may be vital to keep the business up and running. Employers should raise awareness among staff of the signs and symptoms of flu and the need for individuals to stay at home if they have these symptoms. Employers should communicate any changes to their policies and inform staff what the business plans to do. Employee contact details should be accurate and up to date so that employers can contact them and know who to contact if an employee falls ill. It should be made clear who employees can contact for information and what information will be made available. It is also helpful to prepare answers to likely questions to ensure a consistent approach to questions from staff.
It may be useful to consider alternatives to direct meetings and visits and ways of generally reducing interaction between staff and the public, where it is not essential. Measures could be taken to increase the opportunity of remote working including supplying laptops and back-ups of contact lists if possible.
Employers should keep in touch with their overseas offices, their GP practices and the Department of Health. Staff should only travel on business when necessary and should be conversant with official travel guidance to the destination of travel.