By Cara Garretson
With the economy showing signs of rebounding, the next big thing corporations need to be concerned about is the affects of the H1N1 virus, according to workplace consultants Challenger Gray & Christmas.
Companies risk becoming significantly understaffed -- especially those that already may be operating with leaner ranks due to recent layoffs -- if the H1N1 virus spreads through their workplaces, says the consultancy. And with the economy still in a frail state, widespread absenteeism due to the flu could set back any progress businesses have made over the past few months.
"A nationwide outbreak will not only impact company staffing levels, but it could cripple an already weakened economy that is just beginning to show signs of recovery, by hindering domestic and international business travel and further impairing consumer spending as wary citizens avoid public places," says John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger Gray & Christmas, in a blog post. The economy may also be taxed by a greater burden on health care institutions and a decrease in tourism and trade as people become less apt to travel or go out in public, he says.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), as of October 10 the H1N1 virus, or Swine Flu, had spread to 41 states and the number of visits to doctors for influenza symptoms was already higher than what is experienced at the peak of the regular flu season, which is typically February. The CDC has stopped counting the number of H1N1 cases, but estimates that between April and June 2009 more than 1 million people in the U.S. became infected with it.
Most corporations aren't prepared for the employee absenteeism that could result, says Challenger, which may reach as high as fifty percent of a company's workforce being absent for as long as two weeks.
The consultancy recommends that companies develop effective leave policies to prevent office-wide break-outs of H1N1. This means encouraging workers to stay home when they're sick so they don't spread the illness, and to stay home when their children are sick so that other kids, and in turn other adults, don't get sick, Challenger says. It also means making sure that employees don't suffer -- or perceive they will suffer -- ramifications for taking sick leave, and to ensure that the policy is well communicated, he says.
In addition, companies need to think beyond their own organizations and develop back-up plans should their suppliers become unable to operate at full capacity.
Yet the consultancy recognizes that many businesses won't take these steps, gambling instead that H1N1 won't escalate to the point that they are affected. That attitude, says Challenger, could end up being very costly.
Challenger Grey & Christmas advises that the best way to fend off a breakout of swine flu in the office is to let employees who can work from home do so.
"Any employee who can do his or her work from home with a computer and phone should be doing so prior to an outbreak. This will help prevent a flu virus from spreading among co-workers," says Challenger.
For those employees who must go to the workplace, Challenger Gray & Christmas has posted a list of guidelines for how employers can protect workers.
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