Health officials were warning businesses several years ago to prepare for an inevitable pandemic.
That threat now has a name — H1N1 — but a recent poll of small business owners in Canada suggests that many continue to ignore the danger.
Commissioned by BMO Financial Group, the poll suggests only one business in 10 had a continuity plan with which to deal with the virus. About two in 10 had a generic plan for emerging health issues.
“It’s a matter of priorities,” said Wes Taylor, BMO’s vice-president for the Alberta south, central and north district. He thinks preparations for a pandemic should move up the to-do list.
“Anytime you find yourself in a position where you have to react to things that are thrust upon you, often the result is never as good as if you could have actually made a plan.”
Mike Axworthy, president of the Red Deer Chamber of Commerce and a small business owner, agrees planning for influenza is not front-of-mind for many of his counterparts.
“I haven’t heard much about it myself, and I’m suspecting that a lot of businesses have not put a bunch of work into it recently.”
Darren Barber, Alberta Health Services’ manager of emergency preparedness for the Central Zone, said a moderately severe flu could result in an absenteeism rate of close to 30 per cent, with this situation continuing for up to six weeks. Some employees would be ill, others would be busy caring for sick family members and still others would simply lay low to avoid exposure.
The consequence of losing nearly a third of their staff would be devastating for most businesses. And in the case of grocery stores, banks, gas stations and many other operations there would also be a significant impact on society, noted Barber.
BMO has continuity plans in place, but even these would be unlikely to prevent disruptions, acknowledged Taylor.
“I’ve got a lot of branches throughout rural Alberta, and if I’ve got some branches that have 30 per cent people down, I’m going to have a tough time getting open in some of my places.”
Businesses with fewer resources than BMO would have a much tougher time adjusting, said Axworthy.
“You’re more at risk as a small business because you don’t have an accounting department, you have an accounting person, for example.”
With widespread H1N1 now several months old, many business people consider it a mild illness.
That’s a mistake, said Barber.
“We still don’t know which way this virus is going to go — if it’s going to become more severe or not.”
Even if it doesn’t result in a lot of deaths, it could still cause large numbers of people to miss work, he said.
A good first step for a business is to identify the services it provides, and then prioritize these on the basis of how critical they are to operations and how important they are to society, said Barber. Arrangements could then be made to transfer resources from low-priority services to high-priority ones, including cross-training staff.
Some businesses might want to stockpile equipment so they can operate even if their suppliers can’t, said Barber.
He also urges education about preventive techniques like hand-washing, and to raise awareness about the illness so workers don’t panic needlessly and hide at home.
“Education is the big one,” he said.
The arrival of H1N1 has probably pushed businesses forward in their planning, said Barber.
“They seem to be more focused on it. I think it’s become more real to them.”
Melanie Warren, owner-operator of Red Deer’s Millerdale Pharmacy, agreed. She noticed a spike in demand for products like gloves, masks and hand-sanitizers as the flu infected more people.
Some supplies even grew scarce.
The federal government recently awarded a $926,000 contract to help raise awareness among businesses in Canada. The International Centre or Infectious Disease in Winnipeg and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce are expected to develop communication programs to reach more than 300,000 small- and medium-sized operations.
Alberta Health Services also offers a pandemic planning checklist online at http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/files/News/ns-2009-05-10-checklist-business.pdf.
“Those resources were built and provided so businesses don’t have to start from scratch, they can have a template to follow,” said Barber.
Business continuity planning makes good sense, said Taylor, because it could prove effective in dealing with other crises.
“You could lose 25 per cent of a small workforce on any day for any reason, so it’s simply a good idea to have a plan in general.”