Psychological impact of swine flu must be managed at work

The UK is now reported to have the third highest number of swine flu cases in the world. Until now, the focus for business has been on contingency plans and absence management procedures. However, with the country now gripped by the pandemic, companies must start to look beyond this to identify the steps they should take to mitigate the psychological impact on work and business performance.

Daily news about the virus threat is causing anxiety and stress: parents are worried about their children, workers are anxious about the financial and health risks of catching the virus, and managers are worried about the impact of staff needing time off sick, or to care for others who are. All this is having a significant impact on performance at work and business continuity.

But how can organisations prepare themselves and their employees for the psychological impact of the virus? Steps can be taken not only to ensure the wellbeing of staff, but also management and the organisation as a whole.


Processes that focus on employees as people need to be in place to support managers in the shift from managing objectives, targets and finances, to monitoring levels of anxiety, illness, and possible death among their teams. For example, they need to be helped to understand their role within the business when an employee has swine flu, or if an employee is pregnant and highly anxious about their journey to work, or in the worst-case scenario, what to do if an employee dies from the illness.

Working at home is the ideal solution, in theory. But people go to work to do more than just earn money. They go to connect and communicate, to feel a sense of achievement and gain self-esteem. Therefore, do not assume that all staff will want to work from home. Talk to them about their options and the wider social and family issues that arise from homeworking; some employees may thrive working from home while others may dread the idea.


Managers need to ask staff about their family commitments to get an understanding of their support network at home should one of their children or their partner become ill. With two working adults in a household, whose job takes priority in pandemic flu situations? Basic assumptions about priorities, health, family life and routines may all be disrupted, which will immediately cause staff to re-evaluate their lives. Begin the process of talking about it now so that it doesn’t come as a shock when employees are confronted with the illness.

Managers should have an open door policy for their staff to talk about their problems and concerns. Alternatively, providing a counselling service – either face to face or with the wide variety of telephone counselling services, such as the Employee Assistance Programme – can offer personal support to employees and their families.

Manage anxiety

It is not surprising that employees are anxious about swine flu; the constant stream of news reports and drastic predictions of death are highly likely to provoke panic and worry. Our quickest response to any new situation is always the emotional response – it takes a bit longer and bit more concentration to respond with thoughtful common sense. However, you should be aiming to encourage employees to:

  • get authorised facts about the illness for themselves and family members.

  • maintain (or adopt) a healthy lifestyle, which is the best defence against any illness.

  • adopt thorough hygiene habits

  • seek additional help if they or their families have known health vulnerabilities.

  • By actively communicating with employees in relative calm, managers and organisations will have time to apply a more thoughtful and less anxious plan for managing the worst.

Mandy Rutter is clinical manager at AXA ICAS and part of the AXA ICAS CRISIScall® team. Further details can also be found at

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