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Coronavirus: How should HR prepare?

With the world intently watching as the coronavirus spreads, HR professionals would be wise to prepare for the possibility of an outbreak among their workers. We asked Dr Adrian Hyzler, Chief Medical Officer at Healix International, to offer some guidance on how best to respond.

30th Jan 2020
Editor HRZone
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Contagious infection at work - man sneezing
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With the headlines constantly updating us on the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, employers should be on high alert and ready to act appropriately.

Governments are attempting to contain the infection, which is believed to have emerged from illegally traded wildlife in a seafood market in Wuhan, the capital of Central China’s Hubei province. But the virus has now reached 19 other nations,  including the US, France, Germany, Thailand and Australia. 

Waiting for the infection to arrive before thinking about your approach to the situation could contribute to its outbreak and spread within your business and wider community.

Business travel guidance

In terms of business travel, employers should keep updated with Gov.UK advice. As of this week, the UK is advising against all but essential travel not only to the Hubei province, but to all mainland China. In response to this, British Airways has suspended all flights to and from China.

For businesses who have employees travelling within China, Dr Adrian Hyzler recommends they “consider withdrawing all non-essential travelling employees from China while it is still fairly straightforward. All ‘vulnerable’ travellers should be withdrawn regardless – these would include:

  • Anyone aged 65 and over 

  • Pregnant women 

  • Children and adults with an underlying health condition (such as long-term heart or respiratory disease) 

  • Children and adults with weakened immune systems”

Don't allow for presenteeism

We don’t know for certain if the virus will reach the UK, however Dr Hyzler believes it’s “inevitable”.

“Within a week total numbers of cases have increased by over 1,000% and deaths by 775%, so you can appreciate the speed of spread – noting of course that this may be influenced by increased awareness. It is inevitable that cases will appear in the UK, as they have in France and Germany. The important thing is that the UK is well prepared to meet the demands of testing and managing the patients as they appear.”  

If it does reach the UK, business leaders will look to HR to act rapidly and effectively to help prevent and/or contain the virus among the workforce. Waiting for the infection to arrive before thinking about your approach to the situation could contribute to its outbreak and spread within your business and wider community.

The culture of a company can impact the extent of spread of contagious infections like the coronavirus. If you have managers who expect their team to ‘power through’ any illness, or workers who come in even when sick because they don’t have sick pay and can’t afford to take leave, managing the situation could be problematic.

Clear and direct communications to managers and employees on the importance of staying home when ill during an outbreak of this contagious infection is essential.

Spreading with no symptoms

Coronavirus is a respiratory illness that has similar symptoms to that of the common cold or flu – and we all know how quickly these usual winter bugs can spread round the office.

But what’s especially worrying about this particular virus is that it’s likely to be able to spread during its incubation period (when a person is infected but there are no symptoms) of up to 14 days. There has been strong evidence of one case in Germany in which a Chinese national passed the infection on to a German citizen two days prior to any symptoms showing.

“This makes measures to control spread much, much more difficult.” says Dr Hyzler. “For one thing, temperature screening at airports becomes unreliable and we need to rely much more on wide distribution of information and self-surveillance.” 

Employers can play an important role in communicating this message across its workforce, urging employees to be especially attentive with washing hands or using anti-bacterial gel regularly, to practice the NHS advice ‘Catch it, kill it, bin it.’, and to stay at home at first signs of illness. It is important to remind employees that while the illness may be mild for them, for a vulnerable person it could be far more harmful.

Next steps

HR will need to be ready to communicate accurate and up-to-date information on preventive measures, travel, remote working and quarantine. If your business has a policy on contagious infection, it’s best to look there as a starting point.

Whether you have a policy or not, Dr Hyzler advises the following:

  • Employers should be active in disseminating clear and comprehensive information to all employees

  • Measures should be put in place to allow for employees to work from home in cases where self-isolation may be necessary

  • Suitable wash stations with soap and hot water and alcohol rub dispensers should be available in the office

  • Employers should also use this opportunity to re-educate employees about the benefits of the seasonal flu vaccine, not to prevent this novel coronavirus, but to help to prevent seasonal flu, as well as the potential for ‘flu’ symptoms to be mistaken for the coronavirus

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