The coronavirus outbreak that began in China late last year has gone global. More than 114,000 cases and 4,000 deaths have been confirmed worldwide, and both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have declared a public health emergency.
So far, outside of China, Korea, Italy, and Iran have been hit the worst, accounting for around 750 confirmed deaths combined. The first person in Britain died from coronavirus last week as well, and the number of cases and deaths in the United States continues to climb. Several U.S. states — including Washington, California, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Indiana — have formally declared a state of emergency.
By now, the whole globe must be on full alert.
Beyond the tragic human costs, the outbreak, also known as COVID-19, is having a major impact on the global economy and businesses of all stripes. Few industries remain untouched as fears of a global economic slowdown weigh on the minds of government officials, business leaders, and investors.
For most employees, the concerns hit closer to home. Many people are scared and want to do everything in their power to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.
They need guidance. And at this point, all organizations must be able to offer clear, accurate communication and establish helpful policies that will protect the workplace and ease the minds of worried workers.
WHO, which is issuing daily situation updates on its website, has one key recommendation for everyone: “Get the facts from reliable sources to help you accurately determine your risks so that you can take reasonable precautions.”
This message is echoed by the Harvard Business Review in its comprehensive breakdown of employer best practices: "Dangerous rumors and worker fears can spread as quickly as a virus. It is imperative for companies to be able to reach all workers, including those not at the worksite, with regular, internally coordinated, factual updates about infection control, symptoms, and company policy regarding remote work and circumstances in which employees might be excluded from or allowed to return to the workplace."
This is step one for any enterprise.
Following it responsibly will ensure you provide good information to employees — rather than add to a sense of panic.
Some key facts:
Various authoritative sources have offered a range of workplace guidelines for employers to follow. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is the first one that every employer should review, and it recommends the following, among other best practices:
While the general guidelines are appropriate in most cases, organizations in different locations and sectors may need to respond differently. Many employers in Washington state — where “coronavirus may have spread undetected for weeks” — are taking a very cautious approach.
King County, which is home to Seattle, has recommended people over 60 and pregnant women to stay indoors and away from large crowds. The University of Washington went so far as to not hold classes or finals in person through the end of the quarter on March 20. And Microsoft and other tech firms in Seattle are asking employees to work from home when possible.
Such measures are not feasible or prudent for others, however. An airline cannot let pilots work remotely, for example, while a restaurant in Maine — where no cases have been reported — may hurt operations and worry staffers if it moves to skeleton crew.
Ultimately, as the New York Times notes, "No One Has a Playbook for This.”
But following the lead of other leaders in your sector and area, while also abiding by the most current health agency guidelines, is likely the best approach.
The following is a rundown of how a few high-profile employers are responding.