How organisations respond to a crisis

Major incidents, such as the Boston Marathon bombing that took place in April, are not only traumatic for those directly involved but send shockwaves through networks of friends, family and whole communities.

Such events can make organisations, and commercial businesses in particular, question their degree of responsibility to the community.

All employees will be affected in some way by a major incident in their city or region. Some just want the familiarity and routine offered by work. Employment is a return to the ordinary and offers a reassuring stability.

Others may be unable to return to work because they are feeling disrupted and fragmented. Organisations need to offer a response that matches the expectations of their staff and reaches all employees.

This can prove challenging. The plethora of mental health difficulties that may be expected during and after a traumatic event include depression, exhaustion, tearfulness, withdrawal, lack of concentration, irritability and varying degrees of anxiety.

The role of the organisation is to create the right balance between taking responsibility to provide sufficient education, resources and support, and to use these resources, and encouraging employees to take responsibility for themselves. There are three overlapping areas.

1. The responsibilities of the employer

After a major incident, it is the employer’s responsibility to reinstate working relationships, the work routine and the many unspoken boundaries of the workplace. It is important that managers are:

  • active in their communication and support to staff;
  • aware of the policies and procedures within the workplace for supporting staff;
  • informed about the typical reactions that employees might demonstrate in the workplace; and
  • present in order to retain a high profile during the first few days and weeks after an incident, which will provide a supportive, containing experience for the staff.

Often, we hear feedback from colleagues that their senior managers visited their workplace to pay tribute to their strength and loyalty, but didn’t even take their coats off and remained in meetings all day. A contentious area of responsibility for organisations is their role and profile within the wider community. Should they open up their premises for injured people? Should they provide food, water or clothing? Should the organisation’s first aiders offer their services to the wider community in a crisis?

It is important for crisis and continuity leaders to consider these questions in advance, rather than wait until they are in the heat of a crisis.

2. Resources after trauma

It is the employer’s responsibility to offer supportive resources for staff during the aftermath of incidents. Large organisations are likely to have access to employee assistance programmes (EAPs), care teams, OH services and other wellbeing activities. Smaller businesses can set up temporary, ad hoc initiatives that might include an incident helpline or a trauma consultant visit to the site.

These initiatives show staff that organisations care about what has happened and want to encourage people to get the help they need. An EAP can help when employees feel anxious about talking to their families for fear of upsetting them or burdening them with distressing details of an incident.

Sometimes our families and friends find it difficult to see us upset and in pain, so we censor ourselves. The EAP counsellors are trained to listen to the full details of incidents and to provide education and practical support to employees to help them put their reactions into perspective. This will reassure and calm employees.

3. Employee responsibilities

After a traumatic event, employees often look to their manager to tell them what they should do to manage themselves when in pain and distress. However, managers must resist the temptation to tell employees what to do about their mental health and resist directing them to specific courses of action.

The manager’s role is to assist the employee to regain control of their own decisions and their own health. Instead of saying “this is what you should do” or “if I were you I would do this”, a more empowering approach is to ask questions such as “what support do you normally use when things go wrong?” or “who can you talk to about how you feel?” This can be augmented by education and information through leaflets, and direct communication by managers.

Rather than adopt a whole new set of management skills in times of crisis, managers should aim to amplify their existing good people management practices of empathy, education and empowerment.

Mandy Rutter is senior clinical business manager for human solutions – trauma management and business continuity at The Validium Group

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