Businesses must prepare for widespread major illnesses

By: Barbara Bowes


For the last number of years, Canadians and Manitobans have basked in the glory of the growing global economy. More and more businesses are exporting their goods and services all over the world. Many have established manufacturing plants and distribution systems in foreign countries. With this has come a burst in international travel as employees and owners arrive in various countries for sales excursions, annual meetings and other business trips. Life is exciting.


The Internet has also helped us explore an international world and it is becoming easier and easier to communicate across borders. In many cases, it is said your message will go around the world in 30 seconds with a push of the button.


At the same time, with the Ebola crisis in West Africa, we are now finding out just how quickly and easily dangerous germs can also travel across the world. So, it was not a surprise to learn of the recent Ebola case and subsequent death of a patient in Dallas, Texas, and the death of a Sierra Leone-born doctor in Nebraska this week. Nor was it a surprise to learn of the nurse in Spain who has contracted the disease or to learn of other health professionals who have contracted the disease and died.


However, what is alarming to most readers is the scope and breadth of people who can be touched by the tentacles of this dangerous disease. For instance, more than one hundred people in Texas were quickly placed under close watch for Ebola symptoms. Spain quarantined several health professionals while several hospital staff were reported to have quit over Ebola fears and a perceived lack of training and resources. The United States and Canada are now scrambling to activate their readiness strategies.


As has been demonstrated, an illness such as Ebola has the capacity to shut down entire economies. Schools and businesses have sometimes been closed as a precaution. In fact, the World Bank is warning of a catastrophic “billion dollar” economic impact if health officials are unable to stem the tide of this dangerous illness. At the same time, we all know the health resources in these West African countries are nowhere near the high standards we Canadians enjoy.


Yet, in spite of high Canadian health standards, viruses such as H1-N1 and SARS gave us a good scare. However, now another virus, EV-D68, a respiratory illness is on the rise and spreading quickly. Not only that, our regular flu season is just starting.


As terrible and devastating as the situation regarding Ebola is, there are many lessons for individuals and businesses to be learned. First and foremost, individuals must take precautions for their own health and well-being, starting with the simple doctor recommended task of hand washing. Believe it or not, most people are not aware there is indeed a distinct method to proper hand washing. And of course, with flu season upon us, it is recommended people get a flu shot.


What about businesses? Are they prepared? Apparently not, according to a study by a leading U.S. human-resource association. This study identified only 47 per cent of survey participants had a disaster-recovery plan, in spite of the many lessons learned through the awful 9/11 tragedy.


Sure, we have fair and reasonable sick-leave policies and we tell an employee to stay home if they’re feeling ill. Yes, many of us are placing sanitizing lotion next to the kitchen sink. Severe repercussions on a business from a mass communicable disease are very real. In fact, although you may not recall, Canada lost more than $1.5 billion due to the 2003-04 SARS epidemic. At the same time, 7,000 long-term jobs in Canada’s tourism industry were lost.


So, with this in mind, it’s time for business leaders to ask themselves, “Do you have all your bases covered in case as many as 40 per cent of your employees went off work at the same time?” “How long would your business survive?” If you can’t answer these questions, it’s time for serious planning. In fact, make it a priority before illness hits.


There are essentially six steps to human-resource planning for a mass communicable disease. First, determine who is to be involved in developing your plan, who will approve it and who will act as the backup decision maker. Also, be sure to assign someone to monitor government directives with respect to the illness. As part of planning, examine what might happen to the demand for your goods or services, and at what point absenteeism will affect operations? As well, examine what might happen to your supply chain?


Secondly, re-confirm your core business functions and determine which factors, such as staff roles, services, supplies and equipment are critical to the core functions. What alternative strategies can you identify that could be used during a pandemic? Seriously think about cross-training as many employees as you can, examine your strategies for work delegation and prioritize tasks that can be postponed.


Third, review your human-resource policies for illness and absenteeism, because widespread illnesses certainly push the boundaries with respect to normal policies and practices. How will you balance the challenge of sending sick employees home versus lost productivity and even lost wages for those without sick leave credits?


Step four involves efforts to protect your employees. Identify the communicable-disease threat and educate managers, supervisors and employees on the health risk as well as strategies for self-protection. Ensure all the resources needed to contain the exposure are made available. Identify high and low-risk areas and the staff who work in each. Review your work safety procedures and document your reviews and audits. Offer an on-site flu clinic. If possible, reduce public access to your office and/or reduce employee travel. Seek additional alternatives that will work for your organization.


Step five involves communication and this is absolutely critical, especially if employee fear appears to be gaining ground. Determine what will be said, who will say it and when you will give ongoing updates. Develop a strategy for employees, your customers as well as your suppliers. Choose multiple communication strategies. Use your bulletin boards, your intranet, email and even tweets.


Step six is all about recovery. Know that recovery can take anywhere from 18-24 months. Keep in mind recovery in this case will not simply be about physical operations, information technology and other equipment, it will be more about people and their mental health. Determine what steps are needed to resume your normal operations and give serious consideration to on-site counselling for employees.


Workplace absenteeism is a major concern these days irrespective of a mass communicable illness. However, when a crisis such as a widespread major illness does hit our businesses, we need a plan to deal with it.


Source: International Centre for Infectious Disease Control/LBG presentation, 2007, Controlling Exposure, Protecting Workers from Infectious Disease, WorkSafe BC, 2009. Disaster Planning and Recovery, SHRM, 2012. Ebola economic impact in West Africa could be catastrophic: World Bank, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 8, 2014.


About the Author: Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She is also host of the weekly Bowes Knows radio show and is the author of Resume Rescue and Taming the Workplace Tigers. She can be reached at Learn more at

What’s your opinion about people who are always late versus early for work? How do you value a college diploma versus a university degree? Why do you so dislike carrots versus broccoli as a favourite food? And why did you go ahead and purchase a white coloured Nissan car versus blue coloured car from a competitor? Believe it or not, your answers will be influenced by attitude. In fact, all of your beliefs and your behaviour reflects your attitude. Yet, most of us don’t think very much about what exactly attitude is and how we acquire it. Nor do we think about how our attitude influences how we think, believe and act. But attitude does indeed influence us and it is visible for all to see.


So, what exactly is attitude? Attitude is all about how we evaluate people, issues, objects, and events in our life. It determines how we act towards any of these elements. Attitude incorporates emotional, cognitive and behavioural components that lead us to hold a positive, negative, uncertain or neutral view of something. As well, our attitude can also be conscious or unconscious. When we are conscious of our attitude, we absolutely know how it impacts our beliefs and behaviour. On the other hand, some people are not consciously aware of their attitude nor are they aware of how their attitude impacts their beliefs and behaviour, nor how others perceive them. Unfortunately, this lack of self-awareness can lead to behavioural issues in the workplace, which in turn will impact on personal destiny, educational and career success.


Yet, just how do we develop our attitude? Psychologists will tell you that attitude is not genetic, but rather it’s “learned”. And this learning starts within the family environment, followed by the influence of our schools and then the society in which we live. It’s learned by copying people who are important to us be it parents, siblings, teachers, religious leaders, bosses or coworkers. In other situations, especially with social issues such as smoking, an individual might try out a behaviour and if it was rewarded rather than punished, the behaviour might continue. Attitude can also be influenced by powerful and persuasive communication and/or some sort of dramatic demonstration.


Just as we strive to assist students to overcome a negative attitude in the school system, managers can also assist individuals to overcome negative attitudes in the workplace. The following strategies for change are deemed to be effective.


A Learning approach

Changing a negative attitude and adopting a new attitude can be successfully achieved through learning. The strategy is to help the individual identify the “disconnect” between his/her behaviour and a stated attitude. A good example is an individual who speaks highly about environmentalism yet drives a gas-guzzler car. When the discrepancy is pointed out, the individual will feel uncomfortable and will strive to reduce the discomfort, hopefully by changing their behaviour.


1. Communicate persuasively. With this approach, someone can present new information that helps an individual to agree with the observations and/or the conclusions. Following this, point out the contradictions with the observed behaviour and the new information to which they have agreed. When the individual recognizes the “disconnect”, they will be motivated to change their attitude and their behaviour. Be sure to be strategic in choosing the right time and right place and offer brief, factual information to convince the listener.


2. Reward and reinforce. As with young students, adults can be encouraged to adopt new attitudes through reward and reinforcement. Take time to identify a concrete reinforcement that would specifically support the desired attitude. For instance, send an employee to a conference for a learning experience and have them prepare a presentation to colleagues upon return.


3. Take a social approach to change. Invite speakers into the workplace to provide background and information that support the new desired attitude. Actively engage participants so that learning is experiential. Since people will adapt in order to belong, arrange to have the individual engage with a different social group in order to understand different values, beliefs and attitudes and to test out how to gain belonging to this group.


4. Select a role model. Role modeling is a powerful social process to changing attitude and behaviour because individuals will want to emulate the behaviour of the role model. Select a leading figure with status and reputation in the community and who exemplifies the behaviour you are seeking.


5. Build consensus. Changing attitudes through group process is also effective. Arrange for a group of individuals to help them understand the behavioural issues and then create a vision and a goal to change behaviour and attitude. Allow everyone time to express their opinion, bring all areas of resentment and reservation to light and discuss at length. Finally, get consensus on a broad statement and begin to move forward.


While managers need to play a key role in helping employees change negative attitudes and behaviours, the bigger responsibility lays with the individual. The following are some suggestions for taking personal responsibility and being accountable for your own behaviour.


6. Act and speak with purpose. Before you make any comment and/or take any action, determine how this behaviour will serve your greater goal as well as how it will be perceived by others. Take time to look back on your behaviour and actions, take responsibility for failure or rejection and always be open on adapting ways to improve.


7. Choose the right company. In a global world such as today, choosing the right company means being comfortable in as many different group settings as possible. Reach out and befriend new people as a means to explore, understand and accept different cultures, beliefs and values. Be open minded. Take a learning approach.


8. Question yourself. Each of us has cognitive blind spots that make it hard to self-evaluate. However, be introspective and ask how your behaviour or attitude has contributed to a situation you are concerned about. Ask yourself where your attitude came from and what purpose it serves you today. Is this attitude working for you? If not, ask what attitude is more effective and how can you adopt this new way of thinking.


9. Take ownership for your mistakes. Denying a mistake is nothing other than unproductive behaviour. Acknowledge your mistakes; analyze and learn from the mistakes instead of making excuses. Be confident in stepping up and rectifying your mistake in the best interests of all involved.


There is no doubt that our attitude influences how we think, believe and act and it impacts the perception others have of us. In fact, as John N. Mitchell said, “Our attitude toward life determines life’s attitude towards us.”


Source: Shaping Beliefs and Attitudes, J. Howard Johnson, Ph.D., University of Florida, nd.

By Bruce Bodaken and Robert Fritz

Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc. 2006

Purchase here (


It’s well known that managers fail to nip performance problems in the bud and avoid the task by stating excuses such as a lack of time. Bodaken and Fritz offer a simple yet disciplined formula to help managers “speak the truth about performance in ways that work”. Their four-step formula is complemented by good examples and can be applied with individuals, intact and cross functional teams, strategic alliances and repeat offenders. You will learn about the different types of questions to ask and gain tips on analysis of conversations as well as personal skill development. Whereas coaching, mentoring and developing employee capacity should be high on the agenda of any manager, this books looks like one you can’t afford to miss.