Psychological Aspects of H1N1: introduction


Psychological Aspects of H1N1: introduction

  • By Ian Bradley
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Welcome to my series concerning psychological issues related to H1N1 in the workplace.

The series is aimed at Human Resource or Occupational Medicine Departments that are now faced with developing policies and procedures to support their organizations as we head into the second wave of the H1N1 influenza.

H1N1 is a medical problem, but it’s a medical problem with built-in uncertainty.  We’re uncertain about the stockpile of vaccine, the efficacy of anti-virals and most importantly, we’re uncertain about the potential penetration rate in the general population.  Some government agencies have predicted 50% absenteeism from work due to the flu, others as low as 15%.  When humans are confronted with decision-making under uncertainty, we tend not to do well.  Studies examining everything from investment under financial uncertainty to predicting our happiness in retirement have highlighted our biases and susceptibility for self-delusion and emotional responding.

For these reason alone, H1N1 is a medical problem with a strong psychological component.

Furthermore, consider that besides vaccination, most of the preventive and containment measures are behavioural.  Recommendations about hand washing, sneezing into one sleeve, the use of hand sanitizer and even quarantine etc are all mediated through cognitive filters affected by extant beliefs, attitudes, work-group norms and even environmental stimuli.

As a psychologist interested in work, I have been struck by how organizations are faced with the challenge of grafting public health measures into the work environment. More specifically, how does an organization limit disease propagation by keeping sick workers at home, or restrict co-worker contact while still maintaining their primary missions of productivity and profitability?

In the series of posts that follow, I will attempt to explore the numerous psychological facets of the current H1N1 influenza in the workplace.  Where possible, I will draw attention to pertinent psychological research, but most importantly, I will offer specific suggestions to facilitate employee and organizational coping.