Contact: Mercer Feedback
Rosaline Chow Koo, based in Singapore, is leader of Mercer Health & Benefits and Mercer HR Services in Asia and is one of Mercer’s leading experts on avian influenza. Here, she discusses the latest on avian flu, its potential to become a global pandemic, and what companies can and should do to prepare for the threat in order to mitigate the risks to employee health and business continuity and productivity.
Q: What is the current understanding of the threat?
Rosaline Koo: Despite the fact that people are less worried about avian flu than they were about SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), the mortality rate for the avian flu virus is now 61 percent. So far, 167 people have died out of 273 reported cases. By contrast, the mortality rate for SARS in 2003 was 15 percent. Avian flu is much more virulent than SARS.
To date, the virus has been transmitted only from birds to humans, but if it mutates to create a strain that can be transmitted from human to human, it has the potential to escalate quickly, last for many months, recur in waves and cause potentially millions of deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
Q: How prepared to face a pandemic are organizations around the world?
RK: We just conducted a global survey of 450 companies in Asia, Europe and the US. Even though many of the companies believe that avian flu will have a negative financial impact on their revenues and profits, we found that 25 percent of companies in Asia have budgeted and are prepared for a pandemic, compared to 12 percent of companies in Europe and 7 percent in the US. So there is a vast difference in preparedness, which certainly relates to whether avian flu has had an impact in the region yet. In the US, birds are not dying and avian flu is still remote. Also, because of the media alarm that’s gone on for so long, people are saying, “It hasn’t happened here, so let’s not worry about it.”
But it’s actually gotten much worse in Asia. Birds are dying, and people are dying also. In Indonesia, 64 people have died out of the 81 who have been infected, and the country has declared a national emergency and is actively working to educate its population. The latest news is that the virus has started to infect birds in Europe over the last two months.
Q: What are companies doing to prepare?
RK: The first thing companies typically set up is a crisis leadership team run by a C-level executive – typically the CEO, CFO or COO – and staffed by other function leaders, such as the heads of HR, finance, IT, safety and security. The team then assesses its risks and lays out the action steps the Mercer Human Resource Consulting, Inc. How to company will take in the face of a pandemic to maintain business continuity and recover quickly. Given expected absenteeism of 25 to 40 percent during a pandemic, the crisis team also must decide on the chain of command in case one of them falls ills, gets quarantined in a hospital or gets stuck in a country that has closed its borders.
The second thing companies are doing is communicating with employees about what avian flu is and how the organization will manage the threat. For example, what will the company do if someone comes in with flu symptoms? Should the person be quarantined? How do you do contact tracing to make sure that everyone this person has seen in the last five days is isolated and evaluated? To which hospital should the employee be taken? And where can you get Tamiflu (an antiviral medication)?
Third, companies that are really prepared are rewriting their HR policies in advance so they are not caught in a crisis. For example, they are restructuring their leave policies so that someone who is ill does not come to work just because he/she wants to get paid. They have decided quarantine policies in every single country. They have also set travel policies, such as when to stop people from going to certain countries, evacuation policies and policies for obtaining medical assistance.
Firms are also developing workforce policies related to working remotely and minimizing contact among people – who can work at home, which groups have to be at work and how to split the shift for people in some operational groups. Highly prepared firms are also conducting a skills inventory of all their employees so that if someone is sick, they know who has these same skills and who can take over which responsibilities.
Q: Who within organizations should be involved in the preparations?
RK: In addition to the people I mentioned earlier, IT is also very important. In case of a pandemic, you want people to be able to work remotely. Companies need to ensure that everyone who can work remotely has a laptop and e-mail access. People who work in operations or in the systems group have to have access to the right systems, and there must be a way to quickly change security access if someone gets sick and someone else needs to take over their responsibilities. IT also may be involved in setting up videoconferencing in the homes of the crisis management team members so they remain connected to one other, even if they can’t actually be at the work site.
Q: What are companies being challenged by?
RK: The biggest challenge to effective preparation is that some companies, especially in the US, believe that this is another “Y2K” scare. They think, “If we spend this money, what’s to say something will happen? Will our preparations come to naught?” A lot of HR managers take the potential pandemic very seriously, but they can’t convince business managers. The issue is prioritization of resources – funding this versus other business priorities. In Asia, where people know that it happened before and the economy was hit so hard – $80 billion was lost with SARS – it is easier to commit the necessary resources.