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It’s been a difficult few months for Meghan Sutherland and her family.

Less than a week after her fiancé returned from parental leave to his job as a TTC driver he caught COVID-19, and within a few days it spread to the rest of the family. Symptoms were initially mild, but one evening their infant, Aldrik, experienced a sudden spike in temperature, followed by a febrile seizure that required hospitalization.

After that she says, “It was just one thing after another.”

Soon after Aldrik began daycare, and within a week he was sent home with an unidentified illness, the first of many. Over the summer the infant caught a number of ailments – including the flu and hand, foot and mouth disease – many of which he spread to his parents and six-year-old brother, Liam.

“We were all sick all summer,” said Ms. Sutherland.

The family moved to Peterborough, Ont., from Toronto during the pandemic in part to save on child-care costs, but soon found themselves without the assistance of their parents, who live in the GTA. With her husband unable to work remotely, Ms. Sutherland, who is the digital editor for Ontario Out of Doors magazine, says that caregiving responsibilities largely fell to her.

While she’s thankful to have an accommodating employer, she knows that if circumstances had been different, it would have been detrimental to her career. “You’re probably going to have a lot of parents putting their careers on hold in order to stay home,” she said.

Health care professionals are warning of a particularly difficult season for cold, flu, COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses ahead. Many employees – especially working parents – may find themselves in a similar situation trying to balance work and taking care of a sick child at home. As a result, organizations are being urged to consider contingency plans to mitigate risk factors and clarify or amend policies, and to develop clear protocols for maintaining business continuity.

“We’re all bracing for a very challenging fall and winter,” said Toronto Public Health’s associate medical officer Dr. Vinita Dubey. “In our city, but probably nationally as well, COVID cases are increasing, as are influenza; we’ve had many more influenza cases reported this year compared to previous years at this time.”

Dr. Dubey points to the southern hemisphere, and specifically Australia – which saw a 50-per-cent increase in work-place sick leave during its winter – as a warning sign for what may be coming.

She explained that many of the measures that helped reduce the spread of COVID-19 – such as physical distancing and masks – have largely been abandoned. As a result, other respiratory illnesses, such as the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), are also on the rise, especially among children.

So far in Canada this year, CHEO, a major pediatric hospital and research centre in Ottawa, admitted 10 times the average number of patients for RSV in October compared to before the pandemic.

However, Dr. Dubey is optimistic that we have learned a lot about COVID-19 and how other viruses spread, allowing public-health officials to adapt protocols, such as reducing quarantine periods.

“As long as your symptoms are improving for 24 hours you can go back to school. So if you test positive for COVID, you’re not stuck at home for five or 10 days like in the past,” she said.

Dr. Dubey added that it’s important for Canadians to take certain risk factors into consideration as they make decisions in the months ahead. For example, she says those with jobs that can’t be done remotely should consider taking extra precautions, as should working parents like herself.

“From a public-health perspective, the focus is on prevention,” she said. In addition to getting vaccinated, she said “washing hands, gathering outside, wearing that mask – that advice is still good advice.”

In order to prepare for the kind of cold and flu season medical experts are warning about, organizational leaders and HR teams are being advised to start making plans now. They should include clear policies on sick days, work-place flexibility, vaccine requirements and even the return of some in-office health and safety protocols.

“It’s important to take the time to review the sickness policies, or arrangements for working from home, and what to do if you get sick,” said Catherine Bergeron, the health and safety services manager for Peninsula Canada, an HR consulting firm. “It’s important to have the policies in place so that employees and managers have clear guidelines to follow.”

Employers are also advised to conduct risk assessment to better understand the relative risks that different team members or departments face, and the appropriate measures to mitigate them.

“It’s all about business continuity,” said Ms. Bergeron. “Making sure you have enough people to replace those workers that are sick, making sure you have appropriate measures in place relative to the risks your business is exposed to and making sure you’re prepared for the disruption that may or may not occur.”

The upcoming season could also present liability issues for employers, according to Philippe de Villers, vice-president of culture and talent at Montreal-based IT firm Cofomo and chair of the board of Chartered Professionals in Human Resources Canada.

“The mom who has to miss more work because she has to take care of her kids, is she being treated fairly?” he asked. “If people stop giving her good assignments because she may have to miss work because of her kids, that’s discrimination based on family status.”

On the other hand, Mr. de Villers said the challenges that may lie ahead could ultimately serve as an opportunity for employers to enhance employee retention, morale and recruitment efforts.

“Companies are wondering how to make their company more attractive, and for parents to know that we’ll support them through whatever they need to support their kids – it becomes a competitive advantage,” he said. “Demonstrate true care for your people and go the extra mile in the upcoming months, because it is going to be rough.”