An avian flu pandemic has the potential to cause major economic losses due to high rates of illness and workplace absenteeism, loss of critical staff and the quarantining-off of business facilities. In the UK the Department of Health's Influenza pandemic contingency plan assumes quite a low rate of absenteeism:
It is suggested that business continuity plans are based on a cumulative total of 25% of workers taking some time off – possibly 5-8 working days – over a period of 3 to 4 months. Modelling suggests absenteeism due to the pandemic will rise to a peak of 5-7%, the higher number including those who would need to look after those who are ill. This equates to about three times the normal average absenteeism in a private sector company and double that in the public sector.
By contrast, Gartner says employers should "plan for absenteeism rates of 25 to 30 percent." Kim Elliott, deputy director of Washington-based Trust for America's Health, said companies should plan for business interruptions that may see worker absentee rates of 25% to 35% over four months.
Today's FT online report, HSBC warns on possible bird flu tolls, suggests major UK companies are also expecting higher absenteeism levels than government officials.
HSBC, the world's third largest bank, is estimating that up to half of its staff could fall ill or be absent from work at the peak of the next flu pandemic, as Europe began to come to terms with the first human cases of the H5N1 bird flu virus on its doorstep.
The 50 per cent figure is double the rate forecast in draft guidelines for businesses being drawn up by the World Health Organisation. They will advise planning for 25 per cent absence, and the HSBC estimate is the most explicit warning yet that governments may be underestimating possible disruption.
The projections from HSBC - which the bank's head of crisis management expects to be the template for other multinationals - come as the WHO yesterday confirmed at least two human deaths from the current H5N1 bird flu strain in Turkey.
...Bob Piggott, head of group crisis management at HSBC, told the Financial Times he was devising ways to cope with as little as 50 per cent of normal staff during a pandemic wave that could last for up to three months. "None of us knows the virulence of the virus, but I would rather be prepared for the worst," Mr Piggott said.
He said severalother banks were "moving towards" similar estimates for absences, as they began to step up their preparations for a flu pandemic.
The figures are important as a rare public insight into estimates made by a top company - one that has considerable experience, given its activities across 77 countries including those in Asia and Canada affected by the Sars crisis in 2003.
They stand in sharp contrast to official calculations, with the UK government recently downgrading its estimate to an average of 8 per cent of the workforce absent at any one time and25 per cent cumulatively throughout the pandemic.
Mr Piggott said HSBC has devised plans to boost working from home, teleconferencing and office cleaning once an hour in an effort to limit infection. He added that, alongside employees who stayed at home for at least a week with the flu, many would be off recovering from secondary infections. Others would be absent caring for family members and children taken out of school, or avoiding transport and work to avoid infection.
While recent surveys have indicated that employers are beginning to perceive a flu pandemic as a risk to their operations, few have yet made formal contingency plans on how to respond.
If HSBC and other organisations are correct, the short-term disruption to companies could be much greater than the government expects. The contingency plan appears to assume, for example, that schools wil not close and that absenteeism will be illness-related. Yet surely, especially in large cities like London, many workers will stay home either to look after their children when schools close, or to avoid the risk of infection?