The coronavirus is spreading. So far, it’s been found in more than two dozen countries. The number of confirmed cases has passed the 40,000 mark with deaths now topping 1,000 making it worse than the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003.
In the past few weeks, companies have been taking a hard look at how to protect employees both at home and abroad. As strategies and decisions begin to be made, human resources will be one of the leaders in implementing the strategy.
What is the Coronavirus
The coronavirus goes by a couple of different names.
- 2019 Novel Coronavirus
Regardless of the name, it’s not the first time the world has seen a coronavirus epidemic. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreaks were also forms of coronavirus. All were respiratory viruses but the strains are not the same. This current strain was first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. According to the Centers for Disease Control in the United States, the source of this particular strain has not yet been discovered. In the case of SARS, it was tracked to civet cats. MERS was tracked to camels.
When it comes to prevention, the CDC says the best way to avoid infection is to avoid being exposed. That said, there are some regular things people can do to help prevent the coronavirus from spreading. Those include avoiding the urge to touch your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands and of course, stay home when you’re sick. Also, employees should wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after going to the bathroom, blowing their nose, sneezing and coughing and before eating
Currently, there is not vaccine for the virus.
Actions for HR
It will take time for a vaccine to be created. In the meantime, companies should not allow fear about the virus to negatively impact employees.
For instance, HR should make sure that any information communicated about the coronavirus is accurate. Not only that, but HR should, when possible, work to make sure employees aren’t sharing information that is not true or spreading rumors about the virus. This also includes making sure employees aren’t insinuating a particular employee has contracted the coronavirus.
That could increase the risk of discrimination. Employers should make sure employees aren’t refusing to interact with a co-worker or customer who is of Asian descent. This could lead to discrimination complaints.
Additionally, this particular time of year – many people travel to China to celebrate specific holidays. According to SHRM, this could lead some employers to “wrongly presume that people who are Chinese have a higher risk of exposure to the virus”.
SHRM also points out employers need to treat those employees who have contracted the virus fairly and equally. For instance, when making sure employees are well-enough to return to work (sometimes called a fitness-for-duty check), companies need to make sure they are compliant in that practice.
Illness and Absence Policies
There is a natural fear and concern about the coronavirus. As such, some employees may feel the need to use the virus as a means to get out of work. This is a good time for human resources to remind employees about the company’s sick and absence policies. By no means does this suggest if a person is sick, that individual should come to work. In fact, that person should stay home and, if feasible, work from home.
An epidemic also changes the way employees interact with one another in the workplace. Employees should be encouraged to avoid shaking hands and to cough into their elbow if need be. Additionally, in-person meetings should be avoided.
Also, companies should make sure employees have access to hand sanitizer and should help in having work areas sanitized as often as possible.
There are a number of resources HR and senior leadership has access to, ones that can help manage their particular organization’s response to the outbreak. The World Health Organization, for instance, publishes daily reports on the coronavirus and has done so since January 21. The CDC provides a situation summary as well as information on symptoms, transmission, care, prevention and treatment.
As mentioned earlier, HR has a real role to play in making sure companies have a plan to deal with the outbreak on all fronts. During these times, human resources professionals become the “calmers” for their organizations and with good reason. The focus of human resources is on the employees. Protecting them and making sure they are consistently healthy goes a long way in protecting the company all around.
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