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The Lessons of the Recent Ebola Outbreak

Now that the U.S. has been officially declared Ebola-free, it's a good time to review some key takeaways from the treatment and quarantine of Ebola.  These lessons can be applied in just about any context.  Whether facing a deadly disease like Ebola or a major workplace change that feels like an Ebola outbreak.

1.  Educate and Inform:  Many employee fears can be addressed with timely education and information.  Ebola news coverage was unavoidable and as a result, there seemed to be a disproportionate fear of contracting and transmitting the disease in the U.S.  News coverage aside, statistics don't lie.  The CDC considers the risk of a U.S. outbreak to be very low.  There appear to have been ony two cases of Ebola acquired in the U.S. (both were healthcare workers in Dallas).  Both recovered and have been declared Ebola-free.  The other Ebola cases were individuals that acquired Ebola outside the U.S. 

2.  Identify and Focus on Real Risks:  Nothing incites fear and panic more than misinformation.  The Ebola outbreak gives employers an opportunity to remind employees of more realistic workplace concerns.  Ebola is not easily contracted and infection requires direct contact wtih an Ebola patient while the person is exhibiting symptons.  While the spread of Ebola in the workplace is unlikely, the characteristics of Ebola mimic a much more common plague in the U.S.  The symptoms include fever, headache, muscle pain, weakness, fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain.  These sound very familiar.  When I hear these symptoms I think flu bug.  Take this as an opportunity to remind your employees to stay home if they are feeling sick.  Encourage your employees to wash their hands and to use anti-bacterial materials.  The common flu is going to be a bigger drain on productivity in the workplace than Ebola might ever be.  A small amount of prevention can go a long way to a healthier workplace this winter.

3.  Revist Confidentiality:  While Ebola might not visit your office, employee illnesses are not that uncommon.  Employee illnesses can make for a good amount of workplace gossip.  Remember that questions about an employee's health should be handled very carefully.  Remember your obligation to keep medical information confidential under HIPPA, FMLA, and the ADA (along with state law equivalents).  That being said, sometimes an employer needs to ask questions about an employees health during one of these flu outbreaks.  The EEOC published a good resource during the 2009 avian flu pandemic and now might be a good time to take a browse of the document.  It can be found at www.eeoc.gov/facts/pandemic_flu.html.  The guide covers a wide variety of topics related to employer responses during a flu outbreak.

The bottom line -- STAY CALM!  Ebola (or any flu outbreak) doesn't need to be a scary topic.  Keep employees accurately informed and focus on the facts.  With a little effort, HR can take the lead and ensure employees concerns are handled without fear and panic. 


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Don Berner, the Labor Law, OSHA, & Immigration Law Guy
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Boyd Byers, the General Employment Law Guy
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Jason Lacey, the Employee Benefits Guy
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