Managing H1N1 anxiety

Kerri Breen
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Doctor tells companies to plan for third wave, future pandemics

A large show of hands at an employers' conference revealed many businesses expected the H1N1 flu pandemic would have a bigger effect on their workplaces than it has so far.

However, it's important for businesses to deal with the effects of worker anxiety and H1N1 fears, says Dr. Sue Rideout-Vivian.

Dr. Sue Rideout-Vivian speaks Wednesday at a workshop for company managers dealing with employees response to the H1N1 virus. Rideout-Vivian is the regional medical director of Shepell-FGI, an occupational medical company. Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Tele

A large show of hands at an employers' conference revealed many businesses expected the H1N1 flu pandemic would have a bigger effect on their workplaces than it has so far.

However, it's important for businesses to deal with the effects of worker anxiety and H1N1 fears, says Dr. Sue Rideout-Vivian.

Rideout-Vivian's presentation at the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers' Council conference Wednesday educated businesses on how to identify and manage non-productive anxiety in the workplace due to the H1N1 pandemic.

Rideout-Vivian, regional medical director for occupational medicine clinic Shepell FGI, explained that fears of contracting the disease, transmitting it and losing income due to time off work generates negative stress for employees and managers.

Many scenarios can make workplaces tense and less productive: a sick worker refuses to take time off; an employee engages in an H1N1 witch hunt and causes disruption; a worker can't come to work because his or her kids are sick.

Those with the sniffles are isolated and stigmatized as a source of disease, while managers working overtime may experience fatigue and become easily agitated.

Rideout-Vivian said these kinds of situations can cause anxiety that "cripples the individual from taking the appropriate actions."

Stressed-out workers are irritable, forgetful, sleepy and socially withdrawn, she said.

In this province, five deaths of people of workforce age are confirmed to have been caused by swine flu. Though initial projections suggested the fatality rate would be one in 200,000 or 250,000, the province's is closer to one in roughly 101,000.

"That's higher than what was expected," she said, adding the increase could be due to the higher prevalence of chronic health conditions in the province.

Media coverage announcing the number of deaths and hospitalizations, frequent briefings from the health minister and the changing consensus on vaccination and treatment is adding fuel to the flu hysteria fire, she said.

"Because there's so many opinions and because it is the unknown, that's why we have had some of the anxiety we've had," she said.

The level of stress and infection depends on the workplace environment, she said.

"If you're working with the school board or in the health-care system, or if you're working with a lot of frontline employees, you had a lot more effects," she said.

But with proper planning, communication and empathy, workplaces can alleviate some of their employees' anxiety.

Rideout-Vivian said businesses should put a plan in place - if they don't have one already - to identify essential workers, establish policies and procedures and communicate quickly and clearly.

She said she anticipates a third wave of the disease this winter and said it's good to be prepared, even if the worst doesn't happen.

"Out of everything negative, you get something positive ...," she said.

Rideout-Vivian told employers they should bite the bullet and offer trips to vaccination clinics on company time.

Up until now, she said, health professionals were focusing on containing the pandemic, and less attention was paid to the psychological and social effects of the illness.

"We didn't think about it," she said. "Certainly, from an occupational medicine point of view, we were thinking about business plans; the projection was that things would be much, much worse," she said.

She expected far more anxiety and social event cancellations, and for the disease to be more widespread.

"We're getting sporadic bits of anxiety," she said. "I really thought it was going to be much worse than what I am seeing."

kbreen@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Employers

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