Podcast 55 Transcript: Pandemic Planning

Written by Ian Portsmouth

Ian Portsmouth: Welcome to the Business Coach Podcast, an advice-oriented series that tackles the top issues and opportunities facing Canada’s small businesses. I’m your host, Ian Portsmouth, the editor of Profit Magazine and we’ve developed this podcast in cooperation with BMO, Bank of Montreal.

While the dog days of August might seem like a strange time to discuss pandemics, 2009 is not an ordinary year for the flu. The H1N1 virus or swine flu captured the attention of the world this spring by spreading rapidly around the globe infecting tens of thousands and killing hundreds of people through July. This has many people wondering what impact H1N1 will have on Canadians when the traditional flu season returns this fall. But even if entrepreneurs are wondering about H1N1, they don’t seem to be doing much about it. According to our recent pole commissioned by BMO, 82% of Canadian small businesses do not have a health related contingency plan in place. So, how much risk are those companies exposed to and what should they be doing to protect themselves? The Conference Board of Canada has been doing some thinking on those questions and others about pandemic planning. So, I am pleased to be joined by Gilles Rhéaume, Vice-President of Public Policy for the Conference Board. Gilles, welcome to the Business coach Podcast.

Gilles Rhéaume:Thank you.

Ian Portsmouth: So Gilles, as of mid-July I believe, ninety thousand people worldwide had been infected with H1N1 or at least had been identified as being infected with H1N1 so the numbers are probably higher. Nearly four hundred people through July had been killed by the virus. Looking forward to the fall, what is the estimated threat level?

Gilles Rhéaume:Well, the thing is that we are not scientists so we can’t project it but the other thing is during the fall season, the flu numbers actually increase, so we can expect continued growth and actually more exponential growth of cases of the H1N1 virus coming into the fall. So far, this virus has not been as virulent as what one could expect. Yes, there has been some deaths but if you look at the number of cases, they have been relatively mild cases of the flu, so that’s a good thing. So we do have time for timing. But worries the Public Health officials now is that this flu will become more virulent in the Fall as the flu season starts and we could be seeing a lot more people getting the flu and also a lot more deaths.

Ian Portsmouth: So, it could become, depending on who you ask, a lot virulent, the strength of the virus could increase, people are worried about it mutating and becoming more deadly. If it does intensify, what dangers would a flu pandemic pose to Canadian businesses?

Gilles Rhéaume:One could expect that with a wide spread pandemic, that you would have a major part of your workforce that would be absent from work. Either because they are sick themselves, their spouses are sick, their children are sick and therefore you have a lot of them staying at home or being in hospitals. And that would mean that for the businesses, they would have fewer people in the workplace doing the job. They can expect the level of absentees due to sickness to increase quite substantially. There are some estimates that said that could you have up to 30% of your workplace out of commission at any given time. And that’s not only people out of commission for a day or two; we’re talking about week, two weeks or even a month.

Ian Portsmouth: And of course, not only will employees at your business become sick, but the employees of the businesses that you rely upon will become sick.

Gilles Rhéaume:Definitely. No one is immuned to this virus and of course, it’s not only the single employer that will be affected, its multiple employers, including those that you rely on in terms of your supplies. Also, in terms of your basic utilities in terms maintaining the service. So that’s going to be a key question for businesses, including small enterprises.

Ian Portsmouth: And purchasers might be ill as well. Gilles, off the top, I mentioned the recent BMO Bank of Montreal pole on H1N1 and that pole again found that 82% of Canadian small businesses do not have a health related contingency plan in place. So my first question to you, does this surprise you?

Gilles Rhéaume:You know, it doesn’t for a couple of reasons. There was also a survey that was done of manufacturers and exporters of which quite a few are large size enterprises and most of them are not prepared for a pandemic. Either they have no plan whatsoever or they have a plan that is outdated. And that is going to be a challenge for businesses. And I think one has to remember that this pandemic caught everyone by surprise, including Public Health officials. It happened quickly, it escalated in terms of the phases estimated by the World Health organizations and also it was on this continent. We were expecting that the next pandemic would come from Asia and would be the Avian flu. So it caught everyone by surprise. So everyone now is looking at it and saying, okay, do we have a plan in place, do we know what we are going to do if that pandemic becomes worst than what it is at the moment, which could actually be starting this Fall?

Ian Portsmouth: So certainly you are of the opinion that every small business should have a health related contingency plan in place.

Gilles Rhéaume:For small businesses, as you know, it goes from week to week. If your workforce is sick, a major part of them, how are you going to continue to operate is going to be key? If not, you might have to shut down. You shut down for a long time, you go out of business. So it’s going to be a question of how to maintain operations, even in these though conditions.

Ian Portsmouth: Now, I suppose the first concern of all business owners is going to be protecting their own employees from the flu. So what can business owners do to reduce the likelihood that their own employees will contract H1N1?

Gilles Rhéaume:First of all is communication. Raising the awareness of your employees about the situation and for an employer, you know, you have great websites, the World Health organizations, the Public Health Agency of Canada, they can give you updates of what is happening with respect to that. Communicating it to employees without panicking, but having a line of communications saying, here is the situation, here is what may happen. And also start communicating what steps could be taken, which starts basically with good hygiene steps to try and prevent the spread of this virus. Also having sanitizers in the workplace. They are not expensive and they could prevent that virus to spread. Cleaning equipment on a regular basis, desks, etcetera, so that virus doesn’t spread. Those are small steps that can be taken that can go a long way in preventing the spread of the disease.

Ian Portsmouth: Now, come the fall, we’re hoping to have an H1N1 flu vaccine. Obviously, small business owners can encourage their employees to get that vaccine. Do you know whether they can actually compel their employees to be vaccinated?

Gilles Rhéaume:You can’t compel and it would be a hard one to do. And also, one has to remember that the vaccine still is sort of questionable whether there will be enough of them to go around for the overall Canadian population. There could be actually some priority lists set up of who’s going to get the vaccine first, etcetera. So there is that aspect. The other aspect is that this vaccine could have adverse effects and could you imagine if an employer forces an employee to get the vaccine. The employee gets an adverse impact of that vaccine, can then sue the employer for having forced them to do that. There is all kinds of implication.

Ian Portsmouth: Now, the recent BMO Bank of Montreal pole happily found that half of small business owners, at least have a general backup plan in place. But of course, that means that half of small business owners don’t have a general contingency plan in place. So could you just outline some of the key steps in business continuity planning? How do you go from having no plan to having a decent plan?

Gilles Rhéaume:First of all, you have to look at estimating the level of risk that you have within your organization. How many employees do you have? What are the critical functions? Basically, starting to see how you can protect the critical functions within an organization and figure out if the person that occupies that position is off sick, which else can back it very quickly. That is sort of the plan you have to go through to be able to maintain operation. Also, if a supplier all of a sudden can no longer supply the goods, the materials, then you have to start figuring, could you have alternative suppliers that can provide the same thing. And start thinking about that supply chain and look at your alternatives. For purchasers, well, there is the issue, how long can you maintain an inventory if the purchaser is out of commission for a while. Are there other purchasers you can sell to in the meantime? Those are the types of questions you have to start asking yourself.

Ian Portsmouth: And when we talk about actual flu planning or health related contingency planning, are there a few more best practices that can be applied?

Gilles Rhéaume:Well, I think in terms of these plans, big part of it is to do with communication and that’s one important step. I mentioned about raising level of awareness in terms of employees, the other aspect is that if it does have a major outbreak and you start seeing some impact on your businesses, how do you communicate that to your employees so that, you know, there is a sense of comfort that things are under control within the organization. And also, basically, when you are looking at the execution of a plan, make sure that you have the flexibility because, you know, you can have the best plan possible. But things happen and you have to modify it as you go. So you have to be ready for flexibility, modifying that plan, being able to see how you could adjust it as the flu hits your workforce.

Ian Portsmouth: Now, small business owners are going to be looking for more information about pandemic planning. Where would you recommend they go for more information?

Gilles Rhéaume:Well Public Health Agency of Canada has a website and you can go readily to there. There are also some suppliers that can help prepare these plans for a very small fee. And they should check around for these suppliers. They can go in and usually, those charge on the basis of size of the organization. For a smaller organisation, it could be a few hundred bucks, but it could be a few hundred bucks well spent. And therefore, also you get the support. The challenge for small businesses is having the capacity to develop the plan. For small businesses that have to work week by week trying to make sure that they meet payroll, that they can cover all their costs to make a profit. Also, you know, we have to recognize that we are going through tough economic conditions. And they have to contend with that at the same time. You know the aspect of spending a few bucks to get some help or going and spending a bit of time going to public websites to get some tips of how to prepare a plan and what to do with respect to preparing your workforce and preparing yourself in case of a pandemic is something that is certainly time and money well spent.

Ian Portsmouth: Absolutely Gilles. Thanks for joining the Business Coach Podcast.

Gilles Rhéaume:My pleasure.

Ian Portsmouth: Gilles Rhéaume is Vice-President of Public Policy for the Conference Board of Canada.

That’s it for another episode of the Business Coach Podcast. Be sure to check out other episodes, which you can download from BMO.com, profitguide.com and iTunes. If you have any comments or suggestions about the podcast, then please send them to me at ian.portsmouth@profit.rogers.com.

Until next time, I’m Ian Portsmouth, the editor of Profit Magazine, wishing you continued success.


Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com