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HR departments facing the coronavirus outbreak – recommended procedures

The coronavirus disease has become not only an Asian but also a European problem, as the number of infected people across the globe is growing. However, we must bear in mind that panic resulting from the disease is as dangerous as the disease itself. How should HR department address the coronavirus outbreak to take care of their employees and organisations, at the same time preventing a surge of panic?

Basic information about the disease and the present state of the epidemic

Current status (as for 02.03.2020, 10:00)

The number of infected persons in Italy has been increasing day by day. At the moment of writing this article, there have been 1694 cases of infection there, out of which 34 people have died. In China, the human tragedy resulting from the disease outbreak has a direct influence on the economy, generating new problems and challenges for the Chinese people and companies. It is just a matter of time when the same problems will need to be handled by Polish officials and HR departments, especially in large organisations.

Picture of coronavirus in Eurasia

Current status (as for 02.03.2020, 10:00) of the coronavirus presence in Eurasia – official data

Avoid panicking 

Another thing that must be taken into consideration is that panic resulting from the disease is as dangerous as the disease itself – if not more so. Shops in Italy have been cleaned out, whereas some desperate or naive consumers are vulnerable to overspending, buying goods from profiteers. What is worse, the virus-related panic has caused racist incidents against Asian employees.

The disease mortality rate and the related health hazards 

In the media information noise surrounding the COVID-19 (Corona Virus Disease 2019), people are losing access to reliable data concerning the real hazards related to the disease.

The disease is moderately severe and it is curable

The SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19 only increases the risk of serious fatal pneumonia. Not every infected person has serious symptoms and in most cases, their life is not at risk. It is even possible to become infected and cured without realising that at all. For a person like this, the scenario is positive, but he or she can transmit the disease to other people.

Even though the number of infected people is gradually growing (at present, there are 89,073 cases all over the world), thousands of people leave hospitals fully recovered (at present, 45,095 patients have been completely cured). The number of deaths caused by the disease is indeed saddening – amounting to 3048 by now – but these are usually elderly people, oncological patients, with compromised immunity, suffering from hypertension, diabetes, chronic respiratory or cardiovascular diseases, and persons experiencing extreme fatigue (in particular due to overworking, which is sadly the case for the medical personnel in China, struggling with the epidemic). Although the mortality rate of the disease is fairly low, it must be mentioned that men die of it more often than women. As far as Europe is concerned, at the moment of writing the article, there have been 2167 confirmed cases of infection, out of which 14 people have died (around 1.7%).

What is the reason for the serious reaction of the WHO if the death toll for the disease is so low?

Apart from the concern for the abovementioned risk groups, there is another worrying factor. The risk level for further mutations of the pathogen remains unclear for now. They are possible, though, which means that the virulence of the disease may soar dramatically. However, this is still just a potential scenario.

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HR procedures in case of the disease outbreak and the related hazards and panic risk

If the epidemic reaches your country, HR departments should strive to introduce special procedures to reduce the risk of the disease transmission, to ensure support for the infected persons, and to prevent the possible panic outbreak among the employees.

To do this, companies in the whole world take the steps listed below.

1. Prohibiting travelling to the risk areas

As early as in January, the HR website Personnel Today strongly recommended immediate cancellation of all business trips to the regions where the disease is present or which are in danger of its outbreak. JPMorgan Chase, Apple, Kraft Heinz, HSBC Holdings, and PricewaterhouseCoopers have suspended all the business trips of their employees and partners with the destinations in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Ford Motors and Hershey Co. do not allow their employees to travel to China at all. The employees of the abovementioned companies who have come back from those countries in the last 14 day are obliged to work from home for the following 3 weeks.

At the moment, the list of high-risk countries should also include Italy, South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Iran, and – potentially – Germany, France, Spain, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Thailand.

It is highly recommended to organise video conferences with all the business partners from the risk areas instead of direct meetings.

Picture of map of coronavirus in Europe

Update for 02.03.2020, 10:00

2. Dealing with the employees and partners who have returned from the risk areas

The employees who have already left for the risk areas on business should work remotely for some time following their return. According to various guidelines, this time should take from 2 up to 3 weeks. This recommendation is absolutely justified, as the coronavirus incubation period is from 1 up to 14 days.

3. Procedures concerning an ill employee 

The symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties; sometimes also: muscle pain, sore throat, headache, nausea, and diarrhoea. Unfortunately, it is impossible to distinguish between the symptoms of severe cold, flu, and the COVID-19 disease. Therefore, any employees who feel ill should promptly see a doctor. If the person has recently visited a risk area, they should go directly to the nearest infectious disease hospital ward (it is also a good idea to inform the hospital about this beforehand). They should not, by any means, go straight to an emergency department, as they might infect other patients there, who are often in a critical condition.

4. Procedures concerning a confirmed case of COVID-19 in an employee 

If you receive information confirming the disease in an employee of your company, you should, first and foremost, follow all the instructions issued by the main regional sanitary institution. If you do not know the instructions, you need to contact the epidemiological institution in question without delay.

The situation may have a twofold outcome: further cases of infection and an outbreak of panic in the team. You need to start with making sure you fulfil all the safety procedures. If the relevant institution does not provide any other recommendations, you can follow the procedures outlined on HCAMag.com:

  1. Remove all the employees from the room where the infected person worked.
  2. Disinfect the room thoroughly in accordance with the sanitary inspector’s recommendations.
  3. To prevent a panic outbreak, provide all your employees with updates on the development of the situation and be prepared to answer any questions connected with both the present situation and the disease as such. Inform your employees about the actual degree of risk, which is much lower than what the media tend to suggest.
  4. Inform your employees about the measures taken to ensure their safety and comfort in the workplace in the face of the existing threat.
  5. Respond as quickly as possible to all the questions asked by your employees.
  6. Show care and support towards the infected employees or the suspect cases. 
  7. Ask the remaining employees to monitor their health and take their temperature twice a day.
  8. Make sure your employees abide by appropriate hygiene standards. It is particularly important for anyone to wash their hands correctly and avoid touching their face, especially eyes, mouth, and nose.
  9. Tell your employees to contact a doctor as soon as they feel any symptoms.
  10. Require your employees to stay home on sick leave in the case of any symptoms, even light ones (according to Singapore procedures, the recommended period is at least 5 days).

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5. Working in risk areas 

If you work in an infected or endangered area, work remotely if possible. Make sure that your employees working from home are – and feel – taken care of. These are the relevant recommendations outlined on HCAMag.com:

      1. Organise your team’s remote work in a transparent and open manner. Keep your remote employees informed about all the safety measures. Be ready to answer their questions promptly (in such situations, the number of questions will probably go up significantly).
      2. Make sure your remote employees have easy access to any necessary information and software – SaaS solutions seem to be the best ones in this case.
      3. Be visible for your employees and make them visible for their managers and HR management. What this means is that regular communication with the employees is crucial. This can be done in many ways: by online communication tools, video conferences, etc. This will help maintain their constant involvement.
      4. Remember about your remote employees in the evaluation process.

If the nature of your organisation makes it impossible for the employees to work remotely, you need to take up the actions described in Section 6 below.

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6. How to prepare your organisation and your office for the risk of an epidemic outbreak

You must remember to maintain the optimum workplace temperature. If possible, equip your office with hand disinfectants and face masks. This has already become difficult and may be impossible quite soon.

With as little as washing your hands and avoiding touching your face with them, you can minimise the risk of infection. Make sure that proper instructions for correct handwashing and hygiene standards are visible in the bathrooms.

Picture of proper way of washing hands

Hygienic hand washing. The image is in the public domain, so you are free to print it and share it.

Moreover, you need to introduce some of the procedures mentioned above, namely:

      1. Ask your employees to monitor their health and take their temperature twice a day.
      2. Make sure your employees abide by appropriate hygiene standards. It is particularly important for them to wash their hands correctly and avoid touching their face, especially eyes, mouth, and nose.
      3. Tell your employees to contact a doctor as soon as they feel ill.
      4. Require your employees to stay home on sick leave in the case of any symptoms, even light ones (according to Singapore procedures, the recommended period is at least 5 days).
      5. If possible, mind that your employees do not eat anything in crowded rooms.

What is more, remember to clean your office more thoroughly, including disinfection, if necessary.

7. Counteracting the negative outcomes of the situation

While implementing the safety procedures, keep in mind that the employees are the most important in this process. The procedures are meant to protect them, keep them safe, and – in the long term – ensure their work comfort. Remember about this when introducing all the procedures and issuing any announcements.

Do not forget that employees from Asia should be particularly protected from any manifestation of discrimination (which has already been noted). 

Speaking for Enterpreneur.com, Adrian Tan has emphasised that, for the sake of the healthy employees’ mental wellbeing, they should not be forced to work remotely if they do not wish to. In the situation of increased stress levels, the feeling of isolation may be even more harmful.

Remember to show your employees that they are not left alone in those potentially hazardous conditions.

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