Health: Crisis in the making

Written by Daniel Fish

You’re in a perpetual scramble to fill customer requests. Clients complain daily of poor service and tardy delivery. Parts and supplies frequently arrive late, because short-staffed suppliers can’t ship them on time. Several big sales are postponed indefinitely because buyers aren’t around to sign purchase orders. Information flows through your business like molasses, delaying your strategic-planning sessions, product launches and marketing campaign.

You went into business to realize a dream, not to live a nightmare — but your winter could be a horror if the medical community’s darkest fears of the H1N1 pandemic are realized this flu season — and you’re hit unprepared.

There’s a one in six chance we’ll see the worst-case scenario, in which 40% to 50% of the population is sidelined by H1N1 for an average of five to seven days, with absentee rates of up to 20% on any given day, according to Dr. Allan Ronald, senior scientific advisor at the Winnipeg-based International Centre for Infectious Diseases (ICID). With many companies operating with threadbare staffs in the wake of the recession, a further 20% cut could spell disaster for them.

A lot of them, in fact. A survey commissioned this summer by BMO Bank of Montreal found that 82% of Canadian SMEs do not have a health-related business continuity plan.

That should surprise no one. Most owner-managed companies lack the human and financial means to dedicate to contingency planning. Entrepreneurial cynicism could be getting the better of them, too.”Small businesses think we are crying wolf,” says Heather Medwick, ICID’s president and CEO. “People are suffering from €˜pandemic fatigue.’ And H1N1 isn’t personal to them — and won’t be until a friend gets sick or a business partner is sick.”

Recognizing the potential impact of H1N1 on SMEs, Ottawa awarded a $926,000 contract to ICID to provide pandemic-planning assistance. Medwick says a toll-free hotline and workshops are among the initiatives being considered, with a major information blast planned for October.

That could be too little, too late, as a typical flu season is well underway by November. Your business should start planning now for the worst.

The first step is prevention. Dr. Allan Holmes, president of Vancouver-based Global Consulting, an emergency preparedness specialist, suggests devising mitigation strategies specific to each employee based on their level of personal contact. You might, for instance, post a sign asking visitors to stand clear of your receptionist. Try also to limit the time people are within six feet of each other, says Holmes; helpful tactics include telecommuting and staggered lunch breaks. Have hand sanitizers at the ready, and encourage staff to obtain the H1N1 vaccine when it’s available.

Inevitably, you’ll have to cope with some people who fall ill. Let everyone know the chain of command, and have two backup staff for every crucial role, advises David Howell,president of Mississauga, Ont.-based Pandemic 101, a pandemic-planning consultancy.

Ensure your business partners are equally well prepared. “Tell your critical suppliers that you cannot renew contracts or continue business if they don’t get a plan,” says Howell.

And if your H1N1 prep turns out to be much ado about nothing? You’ll still be ready for the seasonal flu and other future health threats. Says Holmes: “Many of the [H1N1] mitigation strategies we advise should be used every year.”

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com