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Local Service Partners

Local Service Partners are independent EAPs with which WPO has established strategic relationships for the delivery of global EAP services in alignment with the WPO models, processes and quality standards.

  • 26 April 2023
  • 12 months

Managing & Supporting Employees Through Times of Crisis: An Interview with Lorene Lacey, Director of Global Crisis Response

Emily Fournier

Marketing Specialist

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from recent catastrophes—the COVID-19 pandemic, crisis in Ukraine, rise in climate and natural disasters, and now this period of global economic uncertainty—it’s that crises don’t need to necessarily take place within the workplace for them to cause considerable damage to an organization. As employees continue to work from home, whether thanks to fully remote or hybrid work schedules, the types of incidents covered by the umbrella of “workplace trauma” are expanding to include any event that causes significant distress to employees while they work, regardless of where they’re working from.

As such, employers are now finding themselves faced with the dual challenge of having to adapt their crisis management plans to include remote work scenarios as well as global events that may affect their workforce, while at the same time safeguarding their productivity and maintaining operational effectiveness. Unfortunately, what too many employers are discovering is that this just isn’t always feasible for them to accomplish alone.

The good news, however, is that employers don’t have to tackle these challenges alone: with the help of crisis incident response programs, they can effectively manage crises and minimize the impact on their operations. By working with a team of trained professionals who specialize in areas such as risk management and emergency response, trauma-informed care, and crisis communications, leaders can ensure that workers receive the adequate and timely support they need to effectively cope following a disaster. In fact, the presence of a crisis response team in the immediate aftermath of a crisis or traumatic event has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of long-term mental health effects.

And while the resources—particularly counseling services—that crisis response programs provide play a considerable part in determining such outcomes, one of the even more crucial benefits that working with crisis response professionals has to offer is the knowledge and guidance that they can share with leaders to ensure that they are, in short, leading effectively, and are actively supporting their employees’ mental health and overall wellbeing, rather than actively harming them.

That said, I recently got the chance to speak with Lorene Lacey, Director of Global Crisis Response here at WPO, who offered some valuable insights into the effectiveness—and importance—of crisis response programs in 2023, including how they work to alleviate workers’ stress, anxiety and uncertainty, keep workforces and their management united, and how they help to steer organizations onward and out of crises.

Read our full interview below:

Emily: To start us off, one of the first questions that I wanted to ask is when we talk about critical incidents and workplace trauma, what’s the scope of that in 2023? As more organizations tout global and/or remote workforces that are members of various social, cultural, and national communities, and as the boundaries between work and life are continuously blurred, how can leaders discern what crises, disasters, or traumatic events warrant a procedural or systematic crisis response vs. those incidents that may, of course, be negatively impacting individual employees, but not enough to warrant an organization-wide, in-depth response?

Lorene: Prior to COVID, all of our crisis requests involved having a counselor go on site, and then after COVID, we switched to a completely virtual crisis support model which was challenging in terms of, “How do we still provide the best clinical intervention in a virtual setting?” But what we learned is that virtual interventions were also effective and provided much needed support to organizations.  Now that’s it’s been three years post-COVID, we’re able to be much more flexible and provide both on-site and virtual support, so it really gives companies more options and flexibility to meet their specific needs.

The other thing that is different, especially in the last several years, is that events that are being requested are community-based in addition to being organizationally based. We’re now seeing an increase in requests for political or social unrest events that impact organizations or their communities.  An example is an active-shooting situation in the community.  Many organizations support communities so that anything that happens in their community, or their country can impact the employees within that organization.

Emily: Definitely. And kind of as a follow up to that, when we talk about organizations now boasting staff around the world and having different offices throughout the world, another question I have is: Can crisis incident support programs be specifically targeted to one department? Or does it need to be the entire organization?

Lorene: All of our requests start with the management consultation by our incident manager team, which is located across the globe and are available 24/7.  No matter where the organization is located, they receive a management consultation through an incident manager who’s going to discuss their needs; each consultation is geared towards a specific action plan that best meets that organization. We then match local trauma professionals, who can, either virtually or on-site, support the organization. It can be one department, or it can be departments with multiple locations. Each request is very uniquely developed into their own action plan based on their circumstances.

Emily: Speaking of trauma, I was wondering if you could walk me through some of the ways in which critical incident stress manifests emotionally, cognitively, physically, and at the organizational level? How can leaders identify signs of trauma in their workforce—especially when it comes to complex trauma?

Lorene: We look at what’s called the Ripple Effect.  If you throw a stone in a body of water, it creates a ripple extending out past the point of impact.  That can happen within an organization. The people who’ve witnessed or were directly impacted by a traumatic event may be more affected, but the emotional impact can continue throughout the organization by other’s hearing about the event.  Some of the immediate ways in which stress can manifest itself can vary based on different types of traumatic events. For instance, there’s the physical impact. People may become shaky, lightheaded or feel nauseous.  Others may experience cognitive symptoms where they can’t think straight, make decisions, or express how they are feeling.  Emotional symptoms often include feelings of anxiety, fear, or anger.  Stress responses such as fight, flight, and freeze are also very common.

Normalizing these reactions can create a powerful response in individuals.  After experiencing a type of crisis or traumatic event, individuals will often say, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I feeling this way? Why can’t I think straighter? Why can’t I just stop shaking?” Perhaps days after, they’re still fearful, or they’re still experiencing a lot of those symptoms I shared.  We want to normalize what you’re feeling after the incident and for days and perhaps weeks after.  It’s important for leaders to be able to recognize that these are normal responses that hopefully will start to dissipate over time, but it is helpful for leadership to continue to monitor how employees are doing, to check in and increase their visibility in the workplace.

Emily: In crisis response plans that are developed in response to these types of symptoms, how do leaders or professionals discern when someone’s traumatic response warrants a workplace change, or when it warrants some kind of intervention with the individual to address their emotional reaction to a situation? So, for instance, if someone was almost hurt by a piece of machinery or something, you know you would make changes; you would modify the equipment or the procedure to make sure that doesn’t happen again, but if people are still excessively worried about an accident happening, when do you decide, “Okay, we’ve already made the modifications to the workplace that we can, and now we need to support this person to help them get over the excessive stress?”

Lorene:  A common reaction especially after any type of workplace accident, near miss, active shootings, or assault/robbery type of events is hypervigilance.  People are going to try and monitor everything around them to assess for impending danger or threat.  The problem with hypervigilance is that it is both exhausting and impossible to maintain.  Part of our intervention is normalizing those reactions, but also encouraging people to access further resources to support themselves, because we never know what someone’s experienced in the past. Maybe they’ve had a series of losses. Or this is their third workplace accident that they’ve experienced.  Any past traumatic events can trigger or intensify their emotional response to the current event.  Part of our intervention strategy is to normalize what they’re feeling, but also to encourage people to access further resources, such as the EAP program and to access counseling services that we provide.

Emily: Right. And in addition to normalizing people’s reactions, are there other, sort of, important first steps that leaders need to take to make sure they’re supporting their employees’ wellbeing?

Lorene: I think the two biggest ones for me are communication and visibility.  I would like to share an example that I witnessed personally.  I was waiting for my airplane at LaGuardia Airport and there was a thunderstorm in the area, so all the flights were either delayed or cancelled.  While I’m waiting at my gate to determine the fate of my flight, I see this angry crowd of one-, two-hundred people coming down the walkway towards the gate next to mine.  You knew right away something was wrong—they were angry and obviously upset.  They start to crowd around the gate agent and shout at her.   Suddenly, the pilot comes up, takes the microphone from her hand and says, “Everybody, I am Captain Jack Smith and I am the head pilot on this flight. Let me tell you a little bit about the situation. There’s been lightning in the area. According to FAA regulations, the crew cannot be out on the tarmac due to the lightning. The latest weather report suggests that the storm should clear out within the next hour. The reason we came to this end of the gate is to keep our group together.  Once the storm has passed—once it’s safe—we’re going to go down through this gate and there’s going to be a bus waiting. We’re going to get on the bus, it’s going to take us to the international section, where we will then board a plane that will be taking us from LaGuardia to Iceland. And the good news, folks, is that once we’re on that plane, I’m expecting a smooth ride.  We’re going to leave this 90-degree, humid, hot weather, and when we land in Iceland, it’s going to be a beautiful 59 degrees. So hang in there, I am going to be with you every step of the way. And as soon as I have other information, I will update you.”

This angry crowd that was just shouting and yelling all stopped and started clapping and cheering.  In two minutes, that captain completely changed the dynamics. Why? Visibility. He got up. He announced himself. He was in a trusted position of leadership.  He provided information. “This is the situation. This is what’s happening. This is why it’s happening. This is what’s going to happen next. I know everyone’s frustrated, but you know what? There’s going to be light at the end of the tunnel; we’re going to get through this. And when we get to our destination, it will be okay.  I will continue to update you. I’m right here, I’m in this with you.” I remember that moment because I can’t think of a better example of leadership that all occurred within two minutes or so.

Emily: Yeah, it really does come down to those snap decisions and almost, kind of, pulling yourself out of your own head and having to focus immediately on everyone else’s safety: “How can I calm everyone down, keep everyone focused?” It’s a huge pivot, and I think it ties in great with my next question, which is, you know, how do leaders strike that balance between processing their own initial response, if they’re in the middle of a crisis, or after a crisis, how do they take care of their own emotional health and also step in and look after that of their people?

Lorene: Often times when I go on site, I check in with the point of contact. They’re the ones to say, “Take care of my people first. Don’t worry about me.” And I know that’s the common reaction, and so that’s what I do. But at the end of the day, I always come back and say, “Okay, I’ve met with everyone who wanted to meet with me, but I want to check in with you —see how you’re doing.” And that’s when sometimes they’ll say, “You’re the first person that’s asked me that. People don’t realize that I’m impacted, too.  I don’t know what I can share and what I can’t share. I’m trying to be a leader.” And so, part of that is letting them know that it’s okay to feel that way.  Yes, you’re a leader, but you’re also a human being with feelings and emotions, and you’re going to experience those same physical, emotional, and cognitive impacts that other employees are feeling. And sometimes, it’s okay to share that; to let employees know that.  By being vulnerable and sharing your impact, you’re also giving permission for other people to do so.  If employees feel that immediately after a crisis, the next day they go back to business as usual, then that’s where we’re going to hear people’s anger or resentment build up because they can’t return to business as usual. They have to process and understand what they’re experiencing.

Emily: Right. And in addition to vulnerability, something I found interesting in conversations or in articles that I’ve read about how leaders can guide employees through a crisis is that buzzwords like “empathic” or “compassionate leadership” and “active listening” are mentioned quite often; stepping in and lending an ear for employees to talk through the emotional or even physical struggles that they’ve been facing as a result of a crisis, things like that. But how can leaders employ these tactics or leadership strategies in a way that isn’t intrusive or invasive? And what steps can they take to ensure that employees feel safe and listened to, and that their needs for personal space and privacy are respected?

Lorene: One of the things you’ll hear a lot about now is creating a psychologically safe environment, where people can bring their authentic self into the workplace.  It’s having leadership create that psychologically safe environment where people can share—if they want to—whether it is where they’re at emotionally, physically, etc., or what they’re going through.  I often suggest leadership keeping an eye on what I call the “vulnerable” employee.  This could be maybe an employee where there’s an unexpected death and the leader already knows that they’ve had recent losses in the family. It’s recognizing and getting to know your employees on an individual basis and then looking out for those vulnerable employees or employees that may initially present okay.  It’s still important to let them know, “These are the resources. You may feel okay right now, but we have these resources available for down the road if things change.”

Often, leaders may neglect the group that state, “Oh, I’m fine. I’m perfectly okay. Don’t worry about me, I’ve been through this before.” But they’re the group that’s going to be the most vocal. If they see that leadership is not supporting the vulnerable employees or not communicating expected updates, they will be the first to speak out. So, it’s important for leaders to keep that door open, increase their visibility, and once again communicate, “How can I help? How can I support?”  One can respect someone’s privacy but ensure that everyone is aware of the resources available for further assistance.

In fact, the research will show that people are more likely to use a resource—especially a counseling benefit—if their manager shares that they’ve used it.  If a manager tells their employees, “Listen, I was going through a really hard time after my father passed away. I called in and used the counseling service and I can tell you, I’m glad I did. It really helped.” That’s going to have much more of an impact and increase the likelihood that an employee will access the support available.

Emily: Definitely, and it’s the same with case studies, too: People always just need the example of a real-world application to convince them that these services work. And so, you know, when it comes to organizing a formal onsite or virtual support service by a trauma professional, I was wondering if you could sort of walk me through some of the main components in doing so? And how can leaders determine when it’s appropriate to bring in outside teams or experts?

Lorene: As I said, it all begins with the management consultation with one of our incident managers who will support that company representative in understanding what happened, what the impact was, the operational logistics, who was impacted—all those types of factors—and then co-develop an action plan moving forward. There are high risk factors that we look out for: Anything like an onsite death or injury would be a higher risk factor or if there’s media coverage where people are going home and seeing it replayed in the media; if this has been a second or third time that something similar has happened within this organization, or if it’s impacted a larger group of employees. We’re looking for those higher risk factors as that is when we’re more likely to suggest on-site or virtual crisis support.

Sometimes a company’s not sure, and in those cases, we offer them guidance. “Here’s the things to watch out for or identify.  This is how we suggest you communicate to your employees.” We provide tip sheets and templates. We encourage them to remind their employees of the EAP services. Our goal is to work out the best plan on how we can support them and their organization.

Emily: I think it’s interesting that you mentioned media coverage. Is that something that you help organizations kind of provide tips or guidance on for their employees?

Lorene: Some of our guidance around traumatic media coverage on having employees monitor what they are watching on the news or social media. It’s going to add to the emotional impact if you’re seeing the same graphic images over and over again, especially if you’ve been a witness to it or been directly impacted.

Emily: And you probably have to talk to them about communicating with media, right? Knowing that they don’t have to engage?

Lorene: Not so much communicating with media, but if it’s on the media, people are going to be calling them and saying, “Hey, I know you work for that organization, what happened?” I will inform employees that they may be getting a lot of calls or people asking them a lot of questions, but right now they have limited energy.  They’re dealing with what they saw and heard and are not responsible for responding to every curious person.  I often suggest, “Have a response that you can use to protect yourself, like ‘I’m not able to talk about it,’ or ‘I’m not ready to talk about it,’ or ‘I just need a break.'” It’s important that they save their energy for themselves.

Emily: Right. And for my last question, which I think ties in nicely with the topic of media coverage because of anniversaries—I had read somewhere about employers not remembering to acknowledge them or the importance of acknowledging them—is, as leaders map out their crisis response plans and prepare for future crises, what’s the time frame that they should be following? In other words, when do crisis responses start and when do they end?

Lorene: This is such a good question.  A lot of times, organizations want someone onsite right away because people are crying after hearing the news of an unexpected death of their colleague. But if you’ve worked with somebody for 10 years and you found out Monday morning that they died unexpectedly over the weekend, it’s natural to cry. You’re going to feel that shock and that disbelief and grief.  You’re going to want to speak and connect with your work family who knew that person. We suggest waiting at least 24 to 48 hours. It gives a chance for people to just connect with their own work or personal family to process that initial news, that shock and disbelief and gives the organization time to prepare for a trauma professional to come on-site. Usually in the first 24 hours, they either want to go home, call their family, or speak to a colleague. We encourage leadership to promote the EAP program where any employee can call in for immediate individual support 24/7.  That first 24 hours can allow for that internal processing and gives the company the chance to pause, reflect, and then arrange and announce that a counsellor will be onsite.  We find the support is often more utilized then.

There is no firm end date marking the end of the need for emotional support. It is very common if there’s been a major natural disaster or major act of terrorism or shooting, the anniversary date will bring up previous emotions.  In addition, it is common to be triggered by similar events.  For example, employees may have experienced an active shooting in their community and then hear the news of another active shooting situation.  They’re going back to what it was like when it happened to them or think, “I just lived through this.” This is why there’s not really a firm end date because life continues to happen, including traumatic events.

Emily: Right. And I’m wondering, have you ever seen organizations bring back on-site counselors for the first-year anniversary, or for anniversaries in general?

Lorene: Yes, very frequently. An example was the Grenfell Fire in the UK. We provided emotional support to numerous organizations around the first and subsequent anniversary dates. Many organizations will reach out and share that they are coming up on an anniversary of significant event and request for a counselor to come onsite.  Our main message to organizations is that we are here to help guide and support them through any type of traumatic or disruptive event that can impact their organization, community or even country.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. Contact us to learn more. 

This content is intended for general information only. It does not provide specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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