With the recent death of several thousand turkeys on a farm in Britain, it appears that avian flu (bird flu) is going to be back in the news cycle for a while. Today a report was released detailing the need for companies to formulate contingency plans in the event of an outbreak, including allowing employees to telecommute. ExxonMobil reported has a plan in place to allow some refinery workers to live at various plants to avoid going home and risking infection.

“We don’t have the option of shutting facilities down. We have the obligation of providing energy,” said James McEnery, deputy vice-president for human resources at Exxon Mobil Corp. “We are going to ask some employees to come in and live in the facility,” McEnery told the conference.

Given that a worldwide pandemic would likely take months to recover from, I am curious to hear more about Exxon’s psychological countermeasures to deal with employees who have sick loved ones at home while they are working. It is likely the first employees selected or volunteering will have discussed the ramifications with spouses, children, if in fact they have any. Despite what screening or counseling may be available in the event of a national emergency there are no guarantees it would be effective, just take a look at the recent NASA astronaut incident.

While some will think of this as an afterthought, it may be of critical importance. The following selection is from Daniel Goleman’s Social Intelligence regarding the research conducted by Ohio State psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and husband Ronald, an immunologist. On the study of ten women who tend to Alzheimer’s stricken husbands,

they have shown that the effects of continual stress research all the way down to the level of gene expression in the immune cells essential for fighting infections and healing wounds.

They also found that these individuals,

were under relentless strain, on duty twenty-four hours a day-and feeling terribly isolated and uncared for themselves. An earlier sturdy of women under similar stress had discovered that they were virtually unable to benefit from flu shots; their immune system could not manufacture the antibodies the shot normally stimulates.

In addition to these negative effects on the stress of sick loved ones (the same stress can apply to work stress under normal circumstances by the way), being near our close friends and acquaintances, with whom a positive relationship exists, will actually boost immune function. Of course this is not to say that if you feel on top of the world you should avoid taking necessary risks when it comes to potential avian flu infection, but companies should consider more than just security and operations when developing their respective strategies to combat a potentially serious problem.

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