Healthcare: Cross-continent contingency

Like SARS before it, the avian flu outbreak has left many organisations pondering the consequences of possible pandemic threats, says Kirstie Redford

If you read nothing else, read this …

A pandemic of avian flu in humans could cause absence rates of 20%-60%.

Quarantine measures could make repatriation impossible and force staff to work from home.

Not all medical insurance provides cover for vaccines so check terms at contract renewal.

Article in full

The growing risk of avian flu spreading to humans is never far from the headlines, particularly since the first case was discovered in the UK in birds last month. If major health threats, such as bird flu or SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), ever turn pandemic, they would affect most organisations. According to Mercer Human Resource Consulting’s white paper The emerging global pandemic: Human resource implications, employers could expect absence rates of 20%-60% from an avian flu pandemic in humans.

A Watson Wyatt survey of 92 multinational organisations revealed that just 11% of European companies have a plan in place in the event of an outbreak of avian flu, despite the fact that 45% of European companies are concerned about its risk to business. No one can predict the true implications of a pandemic threat until it occurs, but there are ways for employers to protect staff.

Simon Dudley, practice director of international consulting at Watson Wyatt, says problems could stem from quarantine procedures. "Organisations promising to repatriate overseas staff may not be able to. If a pandemic did break out, countries may stop anyone leaving their house, so you can’t put staff on a plane home. As soon as signs develop that a pandemic is likely, you should reduce the numbers of staff working in affected areas while they can still travel."

This brings with it continuity risks. "Clear instructions about how staff should work from home if there is restricted movement should be given to all employees," says Dudley.

Mercer has set up a dedicated website and published a white paper on how employers should prepare for an avian flu pandemic. It outlines that employers need to focus on continuity by conducting skills inventories and implementing cross-training to upskill staff. It also advises HR to update leave policies to allow for high absence levels and to provide crisis support to help affected staff recover from both physical and emotional trauma.

Charles Nelson, business leader of Mercer Health & Benefits (UK & Ireland), says: "The World Health Organisation has created clear policies, so communicate them to staff and keep them up to date." Employers may also consider paying for drugs to protect staff. Indeed, some multinationals are already looking at building stocks to vaccinate key employees. David Heppard, head of International Healthcare Consultancy, says vaccinations are often included under employees’ medical insurance. "Make sure that preventative vaccines are covered on your policy as this would then cover staff who were at risk."

A pandemic would put medical insurers under huge pressure, but it is impossible to know how the market will react until it occurs.

No insurers are yet withdrawing any cover or changing terms of contract. And although they do reserve the right to change terms if a pandemic breaks out, they can only do this at a contract’s renewal. "If you’ve signed a 12-month contract they can’t pull out, so make sure terms stay the same at renewal," adds Heppard. Employers should also check any related exclusions on other insurances, such as business travel. With no way of predicting when a pandemic could break out, it makes sense for employers to prepare now in order to protect staff.†