The Coronavirus outbreak:
What HR and business leaders really need to know
Since the first reports of an outbreak in Wuhan, China on New Year’s Eve, the coronavirus (Covid-19) has rapidly become the single biggest talking point around both the proverbial water cooler and Board tables across the world. Recently, I’ve been advising CEOs and HR Directors about the steps they can take to prepare for, and respond to, the current outbreak.
The real threat to individuals and businesses is misinformation. Covid-19 has been dubbed the first true “infodemic”, owing to the role that the internet and social media has played so far in spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories about the outbreak. For instance, the false claim that the virus was spread by eating bat soup has circulated widely, while promotions for fake cures (including garlic and Vitamin C) have proliferated. Individuals and businesses are increasingly sourcing their information from trusted networks, while shunning advice from health experts, government, and international organisations such as the WHO. This can cause stigmatisation, discrimination, and reckless spending of money on ineffectual preventive or protective measures.
For business and HR leaders, managing misinformation is key to successfully managing the current outbreak. You have a responsibility to make sure that you are well prepared as businesses and employers, and that you give accurate and up-to-date advice to your people as appropriate.
The coronavirus outbreak in focus
At the end of last year, most people had never heard of coronavirus, let alone had it at the top of business priorities for 2020. But at the time of writing, 75,000 cases of the newly named Covid-19 have been confirmed across 28 countries. Of course, by the time you read this, this figure will be out of date.
However, such outbreaks occur with historical regularity. In the 14th Century, the Black Death killed 50 million people across Europe in seven years: a third of the total population. At the end of the First World War, the Spanish Flu (1918-1919) killed 50-100 million, more than the war itself. So recent outbreaks should be kept in perspective: SARS in 2002 caused 774 deaths, while the current death toll from Covid-19 has passed 2000.
Covid-19 has been dubbed the first true ‘infodemic’…managing misinformation is key to successfully managing the current outbreak
In recent weeks, I’ve been advising the CEOs and HR Directors of a number of leading businesses about the steps they can take to prepare for, protect from, and respond to the current outbreak. Your level of risk exposure will vary, depending on your industry, locations, and employee make-up. Don’t focus exclusively on the impact of your employees contracting Covid-19 – factor in potential disruption to global supply chains, customer demand, and global demand.
At a foundational level, HR professionals should be actively involved in the following actions.
Review your Business Continuity Plan now. This is a document that outlines how your business will continue operating during an unplanned disruption in service. It’s more comprehensive than a disaster recovery plan and contains contingencies for business processes, assets, human resources and business partners – every aspect of the business that might be affected. Plan for a window of a three to six month disruption, and source clinical expertise to contextualise potential impacts.
Make rational and consistent decisions in light of clinical evidence from authoritative sources, e.g, government advice, health experts and the WHO. This will particularly apply to HR policies in respect of sick pay and absence management.
Communicate all decisions widely and frequently, with evidence-based rationale. This will help to provide reassurance. At the same time, canvass opinion from your employees, to establish their fears and concerns. Give them access to information sources which provide facts, not misinformation.
Involve your Occupational Health provider at both strategic and operational levels. Your OH provider should be working with you to advise you around appropriate steps to take and how to mitigate risk within your organisation.