'Prepare, Not Panic'

Posted on Oct 1, 2009 :: Up Front
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Paul Linzmeyer

As the flu season approaches each year, Schenck SC helps its 500 employees across Northeast Wisconsin prepare by offering free flu shots and handing out little kits packed with hand sanitizer, Kleenex, soup, tea and other supplies designed to help employees stay healthy or feel better if they do get sick.

As the specter of the H1N1 virus hangs over the coming flu season – some public health officials estimate up to 40 percent of the U.S. population will get the virus within the next two years – Schenck is counting on its well-formed plan to keep employees healthy during the accounting firm’s busiest time of the year: tax season.

“We’re very proactive every year when it comes to the flu season,” says Kim Houlton, human resources manager for Schenck, which has several offices in Northeast Wisconsin. “We’re planning to do what we’ve done in previous years as well as putting more attention on people to just stay home if they feel sick and not come in and spread the germs. We’ll talk more about the option of working from home.”

Schenck isn’t alone in looking ahead to the coming flu season and planning how to keep employees healthy and business going if the H1N1 flu virus hits the region hard.

Since the H1N1 crisis first hit the headlines last spring, Appleton-based ThedaCare has gathered its Incident Command Team at least once a week to plan ahead about not only being able to handle an increase in patients at its four hospitals, 22 clinics and two FastCare clinics, but also how to help their 5,400 employees stay healthy.

“If there’s a true pandemic, it’s estimated that 30 percent of a business’ workplace won’t be able to report since they might be sick themselves or caring for someone who is. We need to plan ahead to handle a situation like that,” says Tracey Froiland, a member of ThedaCare’s Incident Command Team. “Since we are in a critical position providing health care, we need to make sure we are able to serve the needs of the community and have enough employees to do that.”

Proper planning is the key for any business to weather the onset of the flu, says Connie Verbruggen, HR consultant at Theda Clark Medical Center. “There are a lot of things to consider: What will the time-off policy be? How long will shifts be? What about working from home? Or moving employees from one department to another? It’s a long laundry list,” she says.

Froiland admits ThedaCare doesn’t have all the answers yet, but as the flu season gets closer the company will be able to get those answers and communicate them to employees.

“Communication is very important. We not only share with our employees the latest news about the flu and how to prevent it from spreading, but we also are asking them to have personal plans in place if their child is sick or if local schools close and they need to stay home. They need to talk with family members in advance and not just when something happens. I tell people we need to prepare, not panic.”

Lynn Heyerof, occupational health operations team leader at Bellin Health in Green Bay, says businesses keep asking the same questions over and over again: Will there be a vaccine and can they get it? How can we keep our employees healthy? How to separate fact from fiction?

“We’re sharing with companies the same websites we turn to for information, such as the CDC (Centers for Disease Control). You need to go to reliable websites to get the right information,” she says.

As for the vaccine question, that’s something no one can answer now. Vaccines are being tested and if one does become available, it will likely be distributed through public health departments and not health organizations like Bellin, Heyerof says.

“Businesses need to share information with their employees about prevention and also develop plans about when people should stay home and how to handle that,” she says. “We’ve created posters and put together a video conference to help define terms, flu symptoms and how people can stay healthy. Keep employees informed.”

A great place for businesses – and individuals – to start is at the website www.pandemicflu.org, says Greg Gibbons, director of emergency management for Affinity Health System. “They have great checklists and other material to help you think ahead and plan. I tell everyone the best thing they can do is to plan in advance for what could possibly happen,” he says.

As for prevention, hand washing is No. 1, says Carol Bess, infection preventionist at Bellin Health. “That’s essential. And stay home if you’re sick. It is difficult to tell people to stay home in this economy since some people may not get paid if they’re off or are worried they will lose their job if they stay home, but that’s one way to stop the spread of the virus. How productive can you be if you’re sick? You may also wind up sicker,” she says.