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As Swine Flu Grips India, HR Works to Calm Fears
Editor’s Note: Reprinted with permission from http://shrmindia.org 

By Ruchi Challu  9/2/2009
 

MUMBAI, INDIA—While the novel H1N1 (swine) flu strain has created great consternation among the populace in India, it has affected Indian businesses as well, and many are taking proactive measures to protect and calm its workforce.

“Swine flu has had immediate impact on the corporate world through panic reaction, which caused many business establishments to remain closed—like places of retail consumption such as malls and cinemas—in some cases through a dictate from the government," confirms Milind Sarwate, chief, HR and strategy, at Marico, a leading Indian consumer products conglomerate. 

“Even academic institutions and places where people gather, such as call centers, have either remained voluntarily closed or have had uncertain attendance,” he adds. In general, retail businesses have suffered because crowds scare off customers. “This reaction, although a panic one, could be justified because as a country we have not yet figured out how to deal with this epidemic,” Sarwate says.

This panic has been witnessed predominantly in Pune, Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore—places in India that have had high incidents of the flu, says Cherian Kuruvila, director of operations, Manpower Services, a Mumbai-based HR services firm.
 
Fighting the Enemy

“We cannot wish away this disease or hope that a few days of closure of establishments or business will solve the problem. We need to get ready to deal with it as a way of life,” Sarwate says. “The best way of dealing with such a situation is to create awareness at all levels and avoid panic. We have to learn to ‘walk around’ the swine flu dangers and still keep our daily life and business moving,” he explains.
The silver lining lies in the fact that employers are not just indulging in wishful thinking but are using virtually all possible methods to help their workforces in dealing with this issue.

"I believe that the Indian [corporations] have taken swift steps and actions to ensure their employees are better aware about swine flu—its symptoms, effects and controls," says Judhajit Das, HR chief of ICICI Prudential Life, a health insurance firm in India. "Companies have been quick to identify cases and arrest the flu from spreading in their respective companies and keep the overall morale of their people high and not panic about the situation," he explains.     
L&T, India's largest engineering and construction conglomerate, is one example. A 45,000-person organization with branches across the country, L&T has had no reported cases of swine flu—yet. Despite that, the firm is leaving no stone unturned in protecting its workforce against the disease. "Apart from sending e-mails, we've put 300 to 400 posters in English and regional languages across our branches on ‘do's and don'ts,’ to educate our entire workforce. In fact, our doctors have also gone to shop floors and spoken to union committees to ensure our blue-collar workers, too, are well educated on this," shares Dr. K.J. Kamath, director, health and welfare services, L&T India. "Moreover, we've written a standard operating procedure—

if a case is found—and sent [it] to all unit heads and HR managers across our branches," he adds.
Similarly, ICICI Prudential has undertaken various measures to educate and safeguard its employees from the illness.

"The most critical measure, around protecting employees, was awareness of the virus. We sent out regular communication to employees explaining the virus details, ‘do’s and don’ts,’ and also details of the testing centers, in case any of our employees may need it," informs Das. "In addition, the supply of hand sanitizers was increased in all locations, and people were encouraged to use them. In highly affected locations, we supplied masks for the employees, especially those in constant touch with customers and external people," he adds.

The company witnessed a couple of suspected cases and one confirmed case of swine flu in its workforce. "We advised these employees to immediately consult their doctors, follow their advice for further treatment and stay at home in controlled environments until complete recovery. Further, the branches that these employees were based in were closed down, fumigated and sanitized immediately," shares Das.

Not just that, the company has undertaken steps to educate its customers on this issue. "Being in the insurance space, especially health insurance, we have used a variety of means to educate our customers like sending SMSs and e-mails to customers and highlighting the details of the virus do’s and don’ts. We've also provided them with help lines for contacting us and the authorized testing centers," Das points out.

Some firms are preventing employees from traveling to highly susceptible places like Pune. "We've advised our people to avoid visiting any epidemic-prone areas. Our international business people too have been advised to avoid visiting epidemic-prone areas," says Sarwate.

Preparedness Is Key

Ultimately, however, preparedness is the key in dealing with any kind of eventuality, says
Kishore Poduri, head, human resources,
eClerx Services Ltd., a Mumbai-based data analytics and customized process solutions provider.  "Ever since the reports of the first case of swine flu surfaced in April, we put in place a communication strategy as part of our BCP [business continuity plan]," says Poduri.

“We issued detailed communication on the intranet on relevant information about the pandemic, precautionary measures, medicines, availability of masks, general hygiene, frequent updates and mailers on swine flu,” Poduri says. “This communication is not just sent out to our employees, but also our vendors and partners. When too many rumors are floating around and there is general panic, it is important to have free flowing information available to everybody.”

The 2,300-employee knowledge process outsourcing firm is networking with a couple of hospitals in Mumbai and Pune in order to deal with a flu-related crisis. It also has a doctor on call for all employees.

Ruchi Challu is a freelance journalist who has worked, respectively, as an editor and reporter for “Headlines Today,” the English news channel of the India Today Group, and Ascent, The Times of India’s weekly supplement, which focuses on workplace issues.

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