Why talk now? The case for communicating with employees before the pandemic arrives

(CIDRAP Source Weekly Briefing) – Your company is preparing for a pandemic, but your employees aren't. Can that possibly make sense?

Companies have their reasons for hesitating to communicate with employees about a possible future pandemic. The four reasons I hear most often:

  1. Companies don't want to scare people.
  2. Companies don't have their ducks in a row yet.
  3. Getting anybody to listen is hard.
  4. There's nothing for employees to do anyway.

I want to respond here to #4. The fact is you actually need employees to do the following before a pandemic begins.

You need employees to know that influenza pandemics are unpredictable

The next pandemic may start tomorrow, or it may not come for years. When it comes, it may be so mild we'll wonder why we worried, or so severe we'll think all our preparations were for naught. Preparedness starts with resilience; it is mostly about getting ready for the unexpected.

You need employees to prepare at home

Companies have a deep continuity stake in their employees' home pandemic preparedness. The value of masks and hand sanitizers in the workplace goes way down if employees don't have them or don't use them at home. An employee who gets the flu on the bus will be lost to the company as surely as one who gets the flu at work. Healthy employees are likelier to come to work in a pandemic if they believe their families are adequately prepared and adequately protected. Helping your employees get ready at home is thus a major piece of helping your company have a workforce when the pandemic comes.

You need employees to prepare at work

No matter where your company stands in the endless tug-of-war between centralization and decentralization of operations, manufacturing, sales and marketing, and other functions, a serious pandemic will be a big-time decentralizer. To a greater extent than you're probably planning for, facilities, departments, and small local work groups will be on their own. Just as your supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link, your company's ability to cope internally will depend on local and even individual preparedness.

I sometimes ask clients who seek my advice on something other than pandemic risk communication what they're doing to get ready for a pandemic. Usually I'm assured that somebody is looking into that. "But what about you?" I ask. "What's your role in the company's pandemic preparedness?" I'm not hearing many answers yet.

You need employees to prepare emotionally

Getting ready for a crisis is as much about emotional preparedness as logistical preparedness. When people first become aware of a terrifying new threat, they normally go through what's called an adjustment reaction. They imagine what the crisis might be like, rehearsing some of what they will probably feel when the time comes. People who have gone through their adjustment reaction before a crisis can cope much better than people who go through this unavoidable stage belatedly, while the crisis is raging.

You need employees to know how your company has prepared

If you expect them to implement your pandemic plan when the time comes, then employees need to know about it beforehand. At the very least, they need to know that you have one. Employees are also much likelier to come to work in a pandemic if they know what sort of preparations have been made in their workplace.

You need employees to help your company prepare

Read the New York Academy of Medicine report, "Redefining Readiness: Terror Planning Through the Eyes of the Public," by Roz D. Lasker, MD.Her 2004 study convincingly demonstrates that most government terrorism-response plans are close to useless because they were developed without significant citizen involvement. Lasker asked people how they would react in specified terrorism scenarios. They told her they wouldn't react the way planners thought they would. And then they told her how the plans had to change. Many company pandemic plans have the same fatal defect: insufficient employee involvement.

You need employees to see you as a useful source of pandemic information

After the virus hits the fan, pandemic information (and misinformation) will be everywhere. Competition for your employees' attention will be fierce. Now is the time to establish in their minds that your company is a relevant and reliable supplement to official sources of pandemic information. When planning your pandemic preparedness messaging, then, consider this important question: What should you say now that will predispose employees to listen to what you have to say then? Suppose you put out messages now that sound extremely confident and extremely reassuring about the state of your preparedness, for example. If a pandemic begins and turns out much tougher than you predicted, you will already have forfeited much of your credibility with employees.

You need employees to think through their conflicting pandemic responsibilities

In a severe pandemic, healthy employees will face a crucial dilemma: come to work or stay home. Nobody knows how anybody (your employees included) will resolve this dilemma when the time comes to face it. But we do know that thinking about the dilemma in advance will help.

The issue isn't just about getting paid, although pandemic pay policies are an important component of prepandemic communication. It's about conflicting responsibilities and conflicting loyalties to self, family, and employer. How empathically you acknowledge this dilemma now will have a lot to do with whether you still have a workforce when a pandemic arrives.

You need employees to cross-train for their emergency duty stations

Ships at sea have an emergency duty station for every member of the crew; stewards aren't stewards when the ship catches fire. The same should be true for business pandemic planning. You have to shift your focus from continuity planning to discontinuity planning—prioritizing which few functions are so crucial that your company will sacrifice everything else to keep them going, even in a severe pandemic. Once you've done your discontinuity planning, you can start cross-training employees for their emergency duty stations. Among other benefits, people are far more likely to come to work to help manage the emergency than to do their routine jobs.

You need employees to volunteer

Volunteerism is a defining characteristic of crisis situations. Millions of people respond to emergencies by wanting to help. And pandemic survivors will be uniquely qualified to help: They will be closer to immune than anyone else. Nobody knows what the next pandemic's case-fatality rate will be, but the horrific 1918 pandemic killed 2% to 3% of those who got sick. That means upwards of 97% of people who became infected got better—and were ideal candidates for a "Survivor Volunteer Corps."

Now is the time to put this question to your employees: "Suppose a pandemic comes, you get the flu, and you recover. What skills do you have that can help?" Some health agencies have already started developing an employee pandemic skills registry. I'd like to see more companies doing the same thing (complete with liability waivers). Apart from the immense practical value of such a registry, think about what you'd be communicating to your employees: "There may be a pandemic. You may get sick. You'll probably get better. You'll be needed."

Now—not later

No matter how good a job you do of warning employees about the need for pandemic preparedness, a lot of them won't pay much attention till the last minute. Just-in-time pandemic communication will be crucial. But prepandemic communication is crucial, too.

Start talking.

An internationally renowned expert in risk communication and crisis communication, Peter Sandman speaks and consults widely on communication aspects of pandemic preparedness. Dr. Sandman, Deputy Editor, contributes an original column to CIDRAP Source Weekly Briefing every other week. Most of his risk communication writing is available without charge at the Peter Sandman Risk Communication Web Site, which includes an index of pandemic-related writing on the site.

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