“Pandemic” and “panic” sound a lot alike. Certainly, the first can trigger the second in next to no time, as the recent outbreak of Ebola has demonstrated. But as a business continuity planning (BCP) professional, you can take healthy steps to avoid both
1. Keep your ear to the ground … and your eye on the Internet
Usually, crisis management plans get “triggered” by an event, such as a natural disaster or an outage. But in the case of a pandemic such as Ebola, you might want to pull the starting gun on your plan before anybody so much as coughs or sneezes.
To be specific, you should muster your crisis management team and have them start monitoring the websites of the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), among others. Don’t forget your local news station, too!
What you want to keep abreast of is the alert status for where your company facilities are located. How close is the danger to your centers of business? Are any of your people traveling in affected areas?
2. Remember that panic thrives on disinformation and the lack of information
People fear what they do not know or do not understand.
Fortunately, you can fix that with a good pandemic communication plan (which could be done in tandem with your crisis plan). If there is any sign that your employees are concerned about Ebola, you should clearly and concisely communicate to your employees:
- The current alert status for your locations
Where they can find information on Ebola – in fact, you may want to distribute official information about signs, symptoms, guidelines, etc.
- What your organization is doing to ensure people’s safety
- Company policies regarding health coverage, attendance, flexible travel schedules, etc.3. Make sure people know the difference between an instance and a pandemic
People tend to blow things out of proportion. It’s just the way we’re made. You need to be watching out for this tendency among your employees, because this is one of the ways panic sets in. You have to know – and communicate to your employees – the difference between an instance of Ebola (which can be managed) and a pandemic (where infection is running rampant).The alert status of the various official health sites will tell you what is going on. For instance, whether the virus has spread from an animal to a human, from human to human, if it has infected a cluster of humans, etc. Take your cue from there. The official guidance might be to “Practice social distance and safe hygiene.” That is sound, practical advice, and if you deliver it calmly, it will help people understand that there is nothing to get hysterical about.
4. Put an ankle bracelet on your employees to track their movements
Okay, just kidding. But you do want to monitor where you have people around the world. Do you have a facility in an affected area? Do you have people traveling in regions where outbreaks have occurred? Do you have some people who do a lot of air travel where they could conceivably be exposed to the virus?
Make sure you are providing extra information and support to anyone who lives in or travels to affected areas. Ask them to notify you if they suspect or know that they have come in contact with someone infected with Ebola. Make sure they understand how Ebola is transmitted. WHO states, “Infection occurs from direct contact through broken skin or mucous membranes with the blood, or other bodily fluids or secretions (stool, urine, saliva, semen) of infected people. Infection can also occur if broken skin or mucous membranes of a healthy person come into contact with environments that have become contaminated with an Ebola patient’s infectious fluids such as soiled clothing, bed linen, or used needles.” In other words, just being in a room with someone and breathing the same air is not a cause for panic.
5. Keep calm and carry on
Let’s say you have an employee come down with Ebola. Staying calm and taking action in an orderly fashion is essential. Remember, this is an incident, not a pandemic at this point. You will want to report the occurrence to an official health organization immediately: they can then help you determine the next steps, which will likely include generating a list of whom the person might have come in contact with and performing appropriate clean up.
Most likely, you won’t want to perform clean up yourself. Have a vendor or two already pre-selected who specializes in cleaning hazardous materials. Until the potentially affected areas have been cleaned, you may want to initiate multiple business continuity strategies:
- For employees who either were in the infected area or who may have been exposed to the affected person, recommend that they stay at home and monitor themselves for symptoms for up to 21 days. Remember that these employees may be too concerned about their health to work during this time period. If the exposed employees develop symptoms, they should seek medical attention immediately.
- For employees who have been near the affected area but are not experiencing symptoms, implement a work-from-home strategy.
- Since Ebola has an incubation period of up to 21 days, expect that people who may have been exposed will be unavailable to work for up to 21 days. People who have been asked to work from home may not want to return until they are assured that proper cleaning has taken place, and they may want to make sure the 21-day period has passed before they are willing to re-engage with their fellow workers.6. Use the news as an excuse to test
One final word of caution: business continuity and disaster recovery plans are only as good as a successful test run. So use the recent Ebola news as a trigger to run a scenario test. You want to be sure that your people know where to go, what to do, how to communicate, how to recover, and all the rest of it.
And, by the way, if you’re breathing a sigh of relief because the Ebola crisis didn’t blossom into a worldwide pandemic, that’s fine. But the next virus or bacteria could. So get testing now, while things have cooled down.
By taking steps such as the ones outlined here, your company can significantly mitigate the risk of both panic and pandemic. You can maintain your productivity and a positive atmosphere, since your employees know you are putting their safety first. Remember, the best disaster recovery scenario is the one where the disaster never happens in the first place.
Related Business Solution: Business Continuity