Telework and Flu Avoidance
Memories are being resurrected of the 1918
flu pandemic that killed millions. Worldwide, the media are full of stories
of the potential of the H5N1 avian flu virus to mutate to a form as vicious
as the 1918 virus. National, state and local governments, as well as international
consortia, are finally developing plans to prepare themselves and their
citizens for this threat. Estimates of the number of flu-related deaths
vary from a few million to as high as 360 million globally. Estimates
for the US range as high as 1.9 million. Conservative estimates of the
economic, business and financial impacts range into the hundreds of billions
of dollars, with non-dollar costs of similar magnitude.* Whichever of
the estimates finally turns out to be valid, consider the consequences
for your organization if you are not prepared for such a pandemic. Suppose
that half of your staff is either sick, caring for sick relatives, afraid
to come in to work, or dead. What would you do?
If ever there was a time for prudent foresight and careful planning,
it is now. So, before you panic, please consider the following points.
- Experts believe that H5N1 will evolve into
a virulent form (let's call it H5N1h) that is transmittable between
humans. The fact that it hasn't yet is good news for the
time being but hardly an assurance that it won't. The threat is real
and not to be disregarded. Indeed, experts say that the question is
not "if" but "when."
- When the virus does evolve to H5N1h it will take several
months--probably six months at a minimum--before an effective vaccine
can be developed, but less than six months for the virus to spread
around the world. It can take up to another year or more
before sufficient quantities will be available to the general public.
Between the time H5N1h emerges and the time the effective vaccine
is developed most people will have no protection from the new virus.
Antivirals such as Tamiflu may or may not be effective after people
have become infected with H5N1h but, in any case supplies will be
limited and distribution will be controlled. The next best approach
might be to be vaccinated against the pneumococcal bacteria that cause
pneumonia since patients weakened by the flu often acquire a secondary,
possibly fatal infection from those bacteria.
- The only real way to avoid getting the flu is not to
be exposed to the carriers thereof. Quarantine may be the
first step that comes to mind in terms of the public health response
to a flu pandemic. Quarantine is the confinement of those
who have been exposed to the disease but not yet developed it. Isolation
is what those who are symptomatic get. Both can be effective in a
simple, limited epidemic. BUT neither of these is likely to work in
a real pandemic. Remember Katrina? Public services basically collapsed
in the affected areas. In a pandemic the situation may prove to be
much worse. Bottom line: you and/or your employer must be
prepared to cope with such a crisis on your own.
- What should you and your organization be doing now
to minimize these risks? Government will not answer this
question for you. But you do have options--indeed some that are entirely
within your control. [Note: Most of this article was written in 2006. For
a 2014 perspective on the problem see this story from
- One option that is both apparent and proven is teleworking.
Decades of experience have established the benefits of telework generally.
But in the context of an H5N1h pandemic it provides an excellent way
to avoid/reduce your exposure while still being able to get on with
your life. This is also an excellent way to avoid infecting your co-workers
if you caught the flu (or just a cold) despite your precautions. The
good news is that our research indicates that roughly half of the
workers in developed economies are potential teleworkers.
- Successful teleworking does require some preparation
and training, so it's best to begin doing it now--or very
soon--so that you'll be prepared when you really need to do it. Don't
wait until it's panic time!
- Telework has a number of very positive "side
effects" for all concerned. As millions of others have
discovered, these benefits include: stress reduction; improved productivity;
reduced work-related expenses; and recruitment/retention of skilled
workers. Telework also has been proven to be vital in the recovery
from other types of disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, blizzards
and terrorist attacks.
- So expand your flu prophylaxis list today to include:
- Test teleworking now, if you haven't already
done so. Check the resources elsewhere in this web site for assistance,
beginning at the personal level with our self-evaluation
test and cost-benefit analyses to
see if you and your co-workers are good candidates. At the organization-wide
level you can try our
impact evaluation services. Include telework in your disaster
planning. Many organizations already have included telework as
an integral part of their disaster recovery plans. Many that have
begun telework in direct response to a disaster (such as an earthquake
or a terrorist attack) have expanded their telework programs after
the danger abated.
- When the pandemic nears you'll want to practice good
hygiene (i.e., wash your hands thoroughly; don't touch
your mouth or eyes; cover your coughs and sneezes; keep away from
others who might infect you--or vice versa if you've already caught
it). You'll also want to be familiar with other public health
suggestions available at places like
Thanks to Wayne Boucher and Linda Russell
and for their inputs to this page. For more on telework and disasters
click here. For a related point of view visit an
April 21, 2006 article by the
Chairman of Reuters.
* Sources: World Health Organization; Michael T. Osterholm,
University of Minnesota; Rebecca F. Grais, J. Hugh Ellis, Gregory E. Glass,
Johns Hopkins University
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Wednesday March 5, 2014.