Small businesses can take special precautions against flu

It's all over the news, even if it's not all over your town. You can't read a newspaper, turn on TV, radio, or the Internet, even get on Twitter, without being barraged with information — and scare tactics — about swine flu. But how can swine flu affect you and your small business?

While there's little chance of getting infected, it's wise to take precautions. Of course, follow advice that's being given to everyone — wash your hands frequently, cover your mouth when you cough, try to avoid touching your face or mouth. But here's a swine flu guide specifically for small business, depending on the type of business you're in.

• Hospitality industry: restaurants, bars, hotels, travel. You come in contact with lots of people, many frequent travelers. At any time, these are the most likely to be carriers of illnesses. Be particularly fastidious about washing your hands and getting your employees to wash theirs. Take hand-washing breaks at least a few times an hour. (You need to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with hot water and soap.) Consider distributing hand sanitizing packets to customers at your place of business. Frankly, try to avoid shaking hands whenever it doesn't seem rude.

• Personal service businesses, such as hairdressers, housecleaning services, child-care businesses. You come in very close contact with people who may be ill; visualize standing over someone at a sink while washing her hair. In some cases, it may be useful to wear a face mask. Get a box of disposable gloves and wear them. If you work with children, take extra precautions now. Every day, wash desks, toys, dishes in antibacterial soap.

• Small companies. Watch your kitchen or lunch room. Most small businesses don't have dishwashers, so remind employees to wash all dishes and cups in very hot water and antibacterial dish soap. Make sure your employees stay home if they're sick. That includes you! I had a horrible cold a few weeks ago and only took a couple days out of the office. Today, I'd force myself to work from home longer.

• Frequent networking, traveling, trade shows. You may be tempted to just hide under a rock, but your business depends on you being out there. You'll be shaking hands a lot, meeting lots of strangers. Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizing lotion with you and use it. Wash your hands frequently. I take Airborne or other multivitamins whenever I'm traveling.

• Home-based businesses. Work from home? You may feel you've got nothing to worry about. After all, there are days you hardly get out of pajamas, so who's going to infect you? But you're probably going to networking meetings or industry associations to market your business, or at least the local coffee shop to get some human contact. And that means lots of shaking hands. Use the same precautions as frequent travelers — hand sanitizing lotion, vitamins, washing hands.

• First year in business or a business undergoing major change. The first year I was self-employed, I caught more colds than any year of my life. Why? Well, first, I was out at meetings, networking, shaking hands. But most importantly, I was undergoing a lot of stress. And stress lowers your immune system. If this is your first year in business, you've got to be especially careful. You may have lost a job, had trouble figuring out what to do, and you're certainly nervous about how much money you'll make. Even if you've been in business for many years, 2009 is a challenging, tough year. And that means a lot more stress.

A strong immune system is the best defense against any illness, including swine flu. So, get enough sleep. Eat healthy foods. Exercise. Take breaks from your business.

Finally, keep perspective and don't panic. When I see what's happening in Mexico, I'm heart-sick both for those who are ill or who've died, and also for all those small businesses that are closed, employees without income, families perhaps going hungry. We don't want that to happen here. We see what's already happening to small pork farmers, who've been badly hurt by people avoiding pork (so let's start calling it H1N1 virus — it has nothing to do with pigs).

Be sensible but be sane.

Rhonda Abrams is president of The Planning Shop, publisher of books for entrepreneurs. Her newest book is Successful Marketing: Secrets & Strategies. Register for Rhonda's free business tips at www.PlanningShop.com. For an index of her columns, click here. Copyright Rhonda Abrams 2009.

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