Organizations Step Up Pandemic Plans, Fear Disruptions

By Steve Bates Oct 22, 2009

U.S.-based and multinational organizations are taking steps to prepare for an H1N1 pandemic amid increasing fears that the virus will hurt their operations, according to a new Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) poll.

The poll report, The H1N1Virus—How Prepared Is Your Workplace, compares the status of preparations among organizations in September 2009 with May 2009. Companies continue to be concerned about the virus, also known as swine flu, but their plans have shifted since the spring.

In May 2009, only 40 percent of organizations polled said they expected that the illness would have a moderate negative impact on them, while 57 percent said it would have no negative impact. In September 2009, however, 64 percent of respondents said the pandemic will have a moderate negative impact on their operations, while only 33 percent predicted that they will be spared negative impact. In each survey period, 3 percent expected a large negative impact on operations.

Small organizations (47 percent of those polled) are more likely than mid-sized (27 percent) and large ones (31 percent) to report that a pandemic will have no negative impact on their overall business operations. Mid-sized firms (71 percent of respondents) are more likely than small companies (52 percent) to forecast a moderate negative impact on operations.


From May to September 2009, the percentage of organizations reporting that they had a disaster preparedness plan for a major H1N1 virus outbreak declined slightly. Publicly owned for-profit and nonprofit organizations are more likely than privately owned for-profit organizations to have such a plan. Large companies are more likely than small ones to have a flu disaster plan.

The latest SHRM H1N1 poll, released Oct. 19, 2009, was fielded Sept. 15-28, 2009, building on similar questions asked of a randomly selected sample of SHRM members in May 2009.

Most companies that SHRM polled in September 2009 are not changing their paid leave policies during the flu season. Thirty-nine percent have modified their policies or plan to modify their policies to require a medical statement that an employee who has been sick can return to work. Twenty-seven percent of respondents have changed or plan to change their leave policies to accommodate persons in high-risk groups for H1N1 complications, such as pregnant women.

The new poll found that many organizations are planning to offer H1N1 vaccine to their employees, though the details vary significantly:

  • 39 percent will offer it free to employees.
  • 18 percent will offer it but will charge employees.
  • 15 percent will offer vaccine to family members of employees, but employees will have to pay for it.
  • 7 percent will offer it free to family members of employees.
  • 7 percent will offer vaccine free only to at-risk employees.
  • 6 percent will provide vaccine only to at-risk employees, and employees will have to pay for it.

Educating employees on flu prevention measures is the top strategy HR professionals are using to reduce the spread of the H1N1 virus in the workplace, with 89 percent of organizations providing such education. The next most common strategy is monitoring the situation by following guidance from governmental agencies and other organizations, used by 84 percent of SHRM poll respondents. An equal number are making available hand sanitizer, other disinfectants, masks and other flu prevention tools.

Three-fourths of companies say they have developed an employee communication strategy related to the virus. Almost that many organizations say they have informed employees not to come to work if they have flu and cold-like symptoms. More than 70 percent are disinfecting common areas of the workplace frequently.

Strategies that have not yet been implemented but are planned by organizations include:

  • Sending home those employees who come to work with flu and cold-like symptoms, planned by half of organizations polled.
  • Setting up telecommuting options for employees if there is an H1N1 virus outbreak in the employer’s area or region; 32 percent.
  • Informing employees not to come to work if they have flu and cold-like symptoms; 23 percent.
  • Securing anti-viral flu medication (e.g., Tamiflu) for employees (e.g., working with health care providers to ensure adequate medication supplies for employees); 16 percent.

Most companies are not changing
their paid leave policies
during the flu season.

Organizations responding to the SHRM poll have made a variety of changes regarding employee travel since May 2009. More have implemented alternatives to business travel, such as use of video or audio conferencing. And more are restricting nonessential business travel in general. However, fewer companies say they are restricting employee business travel to and from regions where the H1N1 virus is confirmed; fewer are limiting business visitors from virus-affected regions; and fewer are curtailing product shipments to or from affected regions in the United States or elsewhere.

The proportion of organizations securing antiviral flu medication such as Tamiflu for employees dropped significantly from May 2009 to September 2009, from 52 percent of those polled to 25 percent.

Steve Bates is manager of online editorial content for SHRM.​


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