Do you remember those problems in school calculus about the multiplication of bacteria? Throw in a little network effect and you can start to build a crude but realistic model of how illnesses like influenza are propagated throughout an organisation. One person carrying flu germs and coming into contact with other people in an enterprise can wipe out hundreds of work hours by spreading the disease. In these cases, the best solution for overall business continuity is individual business interruption – by having the person(s) concerned stay at home until the germs have gone away.
‘Ordinary’ flu is bad enough, but pandemics in general can be even worse: the collective health of communities, businesses and national economies are all in peril. It’s no wonder that many governments have specific pandemic business continuity plans that they offer to those tasked with ensuring business continuity. Of particular note are the ‘inter-pandemic’ years, which represent the period after the last pandemic and before the next one – in other words, the opportunity to prepare for conditions in which people may need to be physically separated in order to continue working together. Pandemic business continuity plans also differ from other BCPs in that they must also assume people will not be returning to work soon after the outbreak of a pandemic – unlike for instance incidents of denial of access, fire or local flooding.
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) offers further pointers about how serious pandemics are likely to affect businesses. Compared to normal absenteeism in winter of eight per cent, a peak two week period for a major pandemic may see absenteeism rise to as much as 20 to 25 per cent (health sector figures), or possibly up to 30 per cent (Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters Association). In addition, a pandemic may come in waves: perhaps two or three of them, lasting from six to eight weeks each, and separated by anything between three to nine months. A business continuity plan may therefore have to take into account a total pandemic period of up to two years with consequent absenteeism and impacts on productivity and profitability.