Keeping People Psychologically Safe When Disaster Strikes

By Dr. Bill Howatt and Michel Rodrigue

We all experience crisis at some point in our lives. Critical events, such as workplace emergencies, environmental disasters, social conflicts, personal crises and more can be overwhelming. However, with appropriate preparation and response to these events, we can mitigate the negative impacts to employees, their families, and the organization.

A qualitative study on how to protect the psychological well-being of staff exposed to a disaster or emergency at work found that while there are some positive effects, such as boost in morale and greater appreciation for life as people come together to support each other. This study highlighted the benefits for CEOs and leaders to take proactive steps to educate workers as to what they can do better because few workers have been prepared or trained to manage crisis.

Of course, crisis can also have many negative effects on workers. These include shock, helplessness, worry, fear, guilt, fatigue, exhaustion, and distress for all involved in the crisis, and, in particular, those acting as caregivers. Some people experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety. In some cases, those who were not direct witnesses experienced vicarious trauma and secondary trauma from hearing stories or seeing disturbing images.

These types of reactions are not limited to work emergencies or disasters. They may also be experienced by employees and their families in relation to environmental disasters, financial crises, car accidents, social conflict, war, epidemics and pandemics, serious injury or illness, death of a loved one, and more.

When people experience crisis, it can be very difficult to regulate emotions, keep a calm mind, and process the event, especially if they or their family, coworkers or friends are directly affected. In some cases, social stigma may arise (as seen in the recent pro-vaccine versus anti-vaccine sentiment) that can result in increased risk of micro-aggressions, harassment and even violence between workers, or aimed at workers from customers, clients, or members of the public. These experiences can put our employees at an increased risk of errors, miscommunication, and physical, psychological and emotional harm.

Well-meaning leaders may send messages that some appreciate, and others criticize for various reasons. Other leaders may opt to remain silent while employees are struggling with emotions, hardship, and trauma — which sends a message of indifference and not caring about employee well-being.

Understand How Social Stigma Arises in Times of Crisis

Civility, respect and psychological protection go hand in hand in the workplace. In times of crisis, we tend to find that incidents of incivility increase. It is beneficial for leaders to better appreciate the different kinds of potential human crises. Through education and training leaders can be prepared to respond in a crisis to take care of themselves and to support workers. Preparation can position leaders in a crisis with useful knowledge and skills, such as how to accept workers and approach them in a way that supports them, given what they may be experiencing.

Although the physiological responses experienced during a crisis may be similar, we should not assume that every worker in a crisis is having the same experience. There are many things that determine how a person may perceive the messages and support offered.  Some people may need different supports than others, and some may be able to offer support that others cannot. Having a better understanding of the needs of your workers, in the social and economic environment in which they live and work, can help leaders avoid making assumptions and prepare them for how to check their words and actions.

Unpredictability, lack of control, and negative consequences are some factors that affect anxiety. During a crisis, these factors are often amplified, especially when the situation is prolonged. When people are in crisis, their fight, flight, freeze response may be triggered, and their instincts of self-protection and self-preservation increase. They may be on the lookout for threats to themselves and their loved ones. Xenophobia and confirmatory bias can kick in and magnify the perceived threat. We may see behaviour such as micro-aggressions (snubbing, ignoring, eye-rolling), conscious or unconscious avoidance of certain people, shunning people associated with the perceived threat, shouting, spitting, harassment, and violence.

In these events, we must be prepared to communicate appropriately and uphold a respectful, healthy and safe workplace for our employees.

Tips to Support Employees Affected by Crisis:

Keep crisis communication in the forefront – The best time to prepare for a crisis is before a crisis occurs. Build crisis communications into your overall communications plans. Consistently let employees know about policies, procedures, and supports available to help them in times of crisis. Identify key messages to include during an emergency or crisis (who should be communicating what, when, how, and to whom).

Knowing what not to say during a crisis is just as important as knowing what to say. This requires you to understand the diversity among your employees, and use that understanding to identify, prevent and address potential misunderstandings. This preparation will help your entire leadership team be better prepared to support employees when the need arises.

Keep employees informed during a crisis This HBR article highlights that communication during times of crisis is crucial. Communicating with a sense of urgency, transparency and empathy helps to mitigate harm and encourages quick decision-making. It also builds trust in leaders, conveys respect for employees, and helps foster hope and resilience.

Acknowledge fears and concerns – Communicate with empathy and acknowledge that people may be struggling. Be sure to include genuine messages of hope and resilience. Provide accurate information to help alleviate stress associated with uncertainty. If employees are concerned about job security or about their health or safety, address those concerns. If they are concerned about situations beyond the employer’s control, acknowledge those concerns.

Avoid speculation – It is important that you don’t respond until you know the answer. It’s okay to say you don’t have the answer yet, but you will provide one when you can. If you disseminate false or inaccurate information, you will lose trust and credibility and people will tune you out when you need to relay important information.

Focus on information to protect employees from physical and mental harm - Communicate incident response procedures, how to access support offered by the company and the community, and respect in the workplace and anti-discrimination, harassment, and violence policies. Communicate frequently — more often than you think is necessary — and through different channels.

Provide psychologically safe spaces for people to discuss what they are experiencing – A resource produced by SHRM to assist leaders in supporting employees affected by the war in the Ukraine suggests that “encouraging employees to discuss their experience and listen to one another can strengthen the organization’s culture and can be a powerful way to combat social stigma. However, this must be done in a way that protects them and fosters trust. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and other affinity networks may be well positioned to lead such conversations”. Set ground rules for the discussion, including place, time, respect, civility, privacy, and confidentiality. Build in time for employees to process, decompress, or access support services after the meeting before they get back to their work or travel home. While this all takes some time away from active productivity, it can help to reduce risk of presenteeism, errors, and harm, and can improve trust and morale.

Establish incident preparedness and response procedures and processes – Crisis response should include crisis preparedness. The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace includes requirements for organizations to establish and sustain procedures and processes to protect employees from psychological harm from critical events at the individual and organizational level. Identify potential events, assess the risk to employees, and ensure you have processes and procedures built into your emergency preparedness and response plans to deal with them and provide support for employees and their families.

Take action to address social stigma and xenophobia – Educate your employees about indicators of social stigma and xenophobia in the workplace, and about policies and procedures for prevention and remedies. Be sure to take action in line with your policies and procedures.

In times of crisis, good leadership is critical to reduce traumatic impact. Training leaders on basic crisis management, including crisis response in your mental health strategy, communicating effectively, ensuring access to support resources for workers who need them, and taking appropriate action are critical steps that can help mitigate the risk of harm during and after a crisis.


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