During a recent town hall meeting, Alan King, president and CEO of Workplace Options (WPO), announced that WPO would be implementing a winter energy stipend for all of its employees in Europe in response to the alarming energy crisis spreading across the continent. It’s yet another example of the organization—the world’s largest independent employee wellness provider—putting its people first in the face of disaster. Earlier this year, the organization acted similarly when it announced the steps it would be taking to support over 400,000 of its members living across Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus following the start of the crisis in Ukraine in a letter penned by King. As the crisis in Ukraine continues to escalate, compounding an already tumultuous environmental crisis with worsening public health impacts, more and more employers are finding themselves faced with the difficult task of maintaining employee health, safety, and wellbeing amidst ubiquitous turmoil, and wondering how they can reasonably do so.
Whether caught in the midst of an economic, environmental, or geopolitical crisis, every organization is now expected to face some type of disaster at some point in the coming years. And as these catastrophic events become more prevalent around the world, getting a handle on crises before, during, and after they occur will become increasingly vital to ensuring the longevity of an organization, as growing research suggests that even distant disasters can have considerable ramifications on employee health and wellness. In order to effectively manage disaster in the workplace, employers will have to promptly and adequately address not only the practical and financial needs of their employees, but their psychosocial and mental health needs as well. This requires that employers:
- Understand the varied ways in which their employees may react to perceived threats;
- Organize a holistic and comprehensive approach to crisis management that takes such reactions into consideration;
- Develop an extensive list of both internal and external resources needed to survive, cope with, and thrive through disaster—and ensure that this list is properly disseminated to all members.
How Employees Respond to Crisis
Although the frequency and severity of crises may vary across industries and individual organizations, exposure to any type of crisis can have a considerable impact on employees’ mental health. While historical data suggests that people in trauma-exposed roles (i.e. firefighters, first responders, healthcare professionals, military personnel) are at high risk of psychological problems such as PTSD, anxiety, or depression, contemporary research has indicated that such risks persist for virtually every industry.1 For instance, recent studies have found similarly high rates of psychological distress and other mental health issues among factory workers who experience an earthquake, bank employees who experience a robbery, and teachers who experience a mass shooting.1-2
And while these crises may be more traumatic for employees who are directly impacted, or who have family or friends that are affected, even those removed from the situation may still experience adverse mental health conditions. This is due to a few different factors; namely, identification with victims, exposure to media coverage, or past traumatic experiences—the recent COVID-19 pandemic, continuing climate crisis, and the impending global recession all being examples of recently shared traumatic experiences that can be attributed to workers’ heightened sensitivity to current disasters.1 Common symptoms reported among even those removed from a given disaster include increased feelings of uncertainty, fear, and hopelessness, despair, guilt, grief, and anger, and a diminished outlook on life.3
Ultimately, what each of these mental health outcomes can be traced back to is disasters’ impact on the stress response. Largely unpredictable, disasters are inherently disruptive; they are disturbances to individuals’ daily functioning, resulting in any multitude of losses: loss of routine and essential resources; loss of safety and security; loss of identity and community; and most importantly, a loss of control. Further, disasters may cause people to become displaced or seriously injured, may result in causalities, or may force others to witness such events. This whirlwind of loss, change, and atrocity can do a number on individuals’ stress management and coping abilities, often leaving them in a state of shock which opens them up to higher rates of stress and other maladaptive reactions.3 In addition to adverse psychological conditions, stress can manifest as physical symptoms, including:
Stress can also lead to behavioral changes as well, including sleep disturbances, social withdrawal, increased irritability, hypervigilance, and substance use or misuse. These can all have a detrimental effect on individuals’ job performance as well, as studies have linked post-disaster stress responses to:
Crisis Management 101: Why Having a Plan Matters
Thankfully, however, strong organizational leadership and effective planning have been found to have a positive impact on employees’ wellbeing before, during, and after a disaster, as participants in one study claimed to have gained a massive boost in confidence, a newfound appreciation for life, greater emotional maturity, and a better understanding of their coworkers if their organization had “responded well” to a disaster.1 This ability to respond effectively to a disaster is largely dependent on the quality of an organization’s crisis management plan: a living document that outlines actions that will be taken, roles that will be assigned, tasks that will be expected of staff, methods of communication that will be used, and resources or accommodations that will be provided in the event of a crisis. While organizations cannot know with absolute certainty what type of disaster will strike and when, being prepared for likely or potential disasters is key for maintaining order and for providing employees with some sense of control necessary to cope with stress, continue to fulfill their duties, and maintain their health and wellbeing.
In order to create a successful crisis management plan, employers will need to:
1. Assess risk. Before outlining what the response to a given disaster will be, employers need to determine what specific types of disasters pose a threat to their organization. Types of disasters to consider include:
- Natural disasters: As a new report from the United Nations warns that the window to avoiding global climate catastrophe is closing, organizations around the world can expect to be disrupted by natural disasters more frequently—and with worsening consequences. For this year alone, drought damages are already above $38.4 billion globally, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths, while data from NOAA reveals that global mega-disasters resulting in at least $20 billion worth of damages have substantially increased in recent years, overwhelming local resources and resulting in significant disruptions to the workplace.
- Financial disasters: According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the world is currently headed towards a global recession worse than the global financial crisis of 2007-2009, which will lead to a cascade of further crises including climate and health crises. If UNCTAD’s projections are accurate, the impending recession will result in monumental losses for organizations, costing the world more than $17 trillion in lost productivity.
- Political/geopolitical disasters: As the crisis in Ukraine continues to intensify, tensions in the West also continue to escalate, as worsening political polarization and international conflicts continue to push the United States (U.S.) toward a geopolitical disaster. To make matters worse, reports of domestic terrorism have nearly doubled just within the last year, as well as reports of hate crimes and mass shootings, creating a treacherous political landscape in the U.S. This poses a significant threat not only to workers’ physical safety, but their emotional wellbeing.
- Workplace disasters: The category of crises that employers have the most control over are the disasters that happen in the workplace. Such disasters can range from workplace accidents, resulting in injuries or death, internal crises, such as allegations of harassment, assault, or sexual misconduct, or crises of misdeeds.
2. Determine how this will impact the organization and its employees. After assessing the types of disasters that the organization could be exposed to, employers will then need to determine what these risks mean for the safety and wellbeing of employees, accessibility to the physical workspace, and the ability to operate as normal. Will it be safe for employees to travel to work? Will employees be able to work at all? Will employees be able to stay in touch with their team leads and supervisors? Will they still have access to essential needs including access to food, shelter, energy, and technology? These are all common examples of questions that employers will need to ask themselves to determine how they can reasonably and effectively respond to a given crisis.
3. Develop a response plan. Once all risks and consequences are assessed, employers can begin to put together their plan. This will require employers to ask important questions that their response plan will aim to answer, including:
- How can employees be reached and kept up-to-date during a disaster?
- How can employees continue to work safely?
- How can employees access key resources and other needed support?
- How can employees be involved or included in crisis management?
- Are there different jobs, responsibilities, or tasks that employees should assume during a crisis?
- Are employees trained to participate in crisis management? Can they be trained?
- How can a crisis be “cleaned-up” or mitigated?
As employers begin to use these questions to guide the development of their response plan, there are four key components that employers will ultimately need to include in order to create an effective crisis management plan. Within the plan, employers will need to:
- Establish a leadership team. First and foremost, employers will need to pinpoint who within their organizations will be responsible for carrying out certain parts of the plan. This will include appointing (1) a team leader, or the person who will make decisions on behalf of the organization; (2) security and financial directors to manage costs, employee training, and the logistics of the crisis management plan; (3) a designated media spokesperson who will become the face of the response plan—essential not just for media relations but for internal cooperation as well, as employees will be in need of a figurehead to turn to as a guide for learning more about a crisis, following along with their organization’s response, and having someone to reach out to if they have any questions or concerns; (4) legal counsel, in order to ensure the response plan is in accordance with local, national, and international laws and is overall legally sound; and (5) HR leaders, who will serve as representatives on behalf of all stakeholders during the development of a response plan, help facilitate trainings related to crisis management for employees and key personnel, and ensure that leaders are acting in the best interest of their employees and that the organization’s response plan is carried out efficiently.
- Assign roles and responsibilities. Once a leadership team is established, leaders should continue to assign responsibilities to those within the team and to employees at large to ensure that everyone is on the same page about what they need to do in the event of a crisis. For employees, key responsibilities to encourage include help-seeking; staying in constant and consistent communications with supervisors, HR leaders, and other personnel; uniting with their teams and coworkers, uplifting and supporting each other rather than arguing or blaming each other for recent events; and staying informed, remaining calm, and taking care of themselves.
- Design an emergency communications plan. In tandem with establishing an organization’s response plan, employers will also need to develop an emergency communications plan that will include contact information, communications procedures, and guidelines for how to communicate in the event of a crisis. This will require that employers examine the reliability of current technologies and methods used to communicate to determine which means of communications will prove most effective for being able to consistently communicate with all employees during and after a disaster—and in a timely manner. Modes of communications to consider include a combination of email, social media, messaging apps, and phone calls. Employers should also consider organizing a hotline or text line that employees can use to get in touch with supervisors, managers, and leadership to find out important information regarding the crisis taking place and the organization’s response to it.
- Identify disaster supplies; internal and external resources. Integral to the development of an effective crisis management plan is a list and explanation of both internal and external resources that employees can access in the event of disaster. This includes outlining how employees can access support through wellbeing programs, government agencies, and community partners, for example.
4. Review and disseminate the plan. Once the plan has been created, employers will need to ensure that everyone within their organization is aware of what to do in the event of a crisis, aware of the steps that the organization plans to take in the event of a crisis, how they can get in touch with supervisors and leaders, how they can stay informed about events as they unfold, and most importantly, how they can protect themselves. Given the limitations and potential unreliability of technology in the face of a disaster—or the limitations of only having hard copies of plans if employees work remote or are out of the office at the time the disaster occurs, employers will also need to make sure that their crisis management plans can be accessed through different means and in various modalities. This may include passing out hard copies in addition to having a digital copy uploaded to an organization’s intranet and posting snippets, explanations, tutorials, and guides to follow the plan on various social media platforms or programs including Instagram, Twitter, Teams, GroupMe, or Slack.
5. Go back and update it. As stated, a crisis management plan is a living document. As situations evolve—the state of the economy, socio-political landscapes, geopolitical tensions, climate stability—so must an organization’s response to potential disasters that they might generate. This includes ensuring that employees are continuously trained on how to follow up-to-date safety practices and are provided with appropriate and effectual resources and support.
How to Maintain Employee Wellness in the Midst of Disaster
Another positive revealed by the study on trauma-exposed workers is that overall, participants agreed that organizations are better at providing post-disaster support than they are at providing support beforehand. Some services, resources, and methods of support that employees commend and desire from their employers include:
- Visible, accessible, and compassionate leadership. In the face of disaster, employees are in desperate need of a constant, calming voice for a presence that will serve as their guidepost to help them work through the chaos. Employees will expect their corporate leaders to be visible and vocal, to emulate employees’ emotions, attitudes, and concerns, and will expect them to be sympathetic towards employees affected by disaster and steadfast in their commitment to help. Leaders should seek to immediately put out a statement, video, or organization-wide message detailing the organization’s response to the disaster, acknowledging employees’ various concerns and reactions to it as well as leaders’ own personal reactions, and reassuring employees that together, they will get through the unfolding crisis.
Leaders should also be mindful to engage in active listening, routinely checking in with their employees individually to ask them how they are feeling, how they are being impacted by the crisis, and taking the time to really listen to their responses, show respect, and display empathy. This may include taking a quick couple of minutes before the start of a one-on-one or team meeting to ask “have you been following the news? Have you been affected by what’s happening? Do you know anyone who’s been impacted?” Will make employees feel cared about, feel safe, and will help them to cope with and work through the stress that they feel. Equally as important, leaders should exhibit vulnerability and open up about their own emotional and personal experiences with the ongoing disaster, to remind employees that they are not alone and that their feelings are valid.
- Debriefing opportunities. Another simple yet effective way to show employees that they are cared about is making time for debriefing opportunities at work. While one-on-one interactions with leaders are crucial to maintaining employee wellbeing, providing employees a chance to talk through their emotions and their experiences in a group setting is a great way to promote team-bonding, which in turn fosters mutual understanding, a sense of togetherness, and strengthened resilience against stress and fear in uncertain times. As disasters often separate individuals from their community or social network, providing opportunities for employees to support one another and receive support from their coworkers is important for satisfying their need for connectedness, belonging, identity, and social support.
Leaders should keep in mind, however, that debriefing can have a range of effects on employees. There is a strict procedure that must be followed in order for debriefing to be effective, and this includes ensuring that the group is homogenous, shares similar experiences, and is not too distraught or distressed to benefit from discussing their trauma. Debriefing interventions should ultimately aim to (1) offer closure to employees, (2) reduce the risk of adverse mental health outcomes, including PTSD, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, (3) identify employees who may need further assistance, and (4) reassimilate employees back into the workplace.
- Disaster relief and recovery assistance. “There’s no way to sugar-coat this: employees recovering from a natural disaster or other crisis are going to need support,” admits Joanne Crossland, managing director of service operations at Insperity. While employers cannot take away the pain caused by disasters, they can provide assistance to alleviate it. This includes investing in employee assistance programs (EAPs) to provide counselling and coaching to employees through in-person, online, and telehealth services. Crisis management plans and emergency communications plans should both include accurate and actionable information on how employees can access EAP services in times of crisis. Further, as part of the external and internal resources that employers provide as part of their crisis management plan, employers should (1) identify local, national, or international agencies or organizations that employees can seek support from; (2) trusted news sources that employees can follow to stay up-to-date on crises as they continue to evolve; (3) parishes, churches, or local non-profit and charity organizations that may be offering additional help; (4) any internal apps or programs that the organization offers to address employee wellness; and (5) any additional article or resources.
For example, following the start of the crisis in Ukraine, Workplace Options designed a webpage outlining resources their clients could access for support, including in-the-moment and structured counseling support with mental health professionals, pre-recorded webinars, financial and legal support, referrals to trusted news sites including Al Jazeera, BBC News, NPR, Reuters, and AP, and referrals to additional support sites including UNICEF, International Committee of the Red Cross, and the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
- Volunteer efforts and initiatives. While it is crucial that employees receive support themselves, and while it is true that some may exhibit self-preservative behaviors, recent studies examining the benefits of altruism as a protective factor against disaster and trauma-induced stress found that the perception of danger is largely associated with increased compassion and prosocial behaviors—dubbed post-disaster utopia—and that being generous to others and meeting new people in the process can significantly improve employees’ physical wellbeing and mental health.4 With that in mind, employers should consider developing structured volunteer efforts that incorporate team-bonding and community-building, stress management, and improving coping skills. Collaborating with local non-profit organizations, community centers, religious organizations, and other charities is an easy way to keep track of volunteer opportunities and to identify where service is needed.
- Wellness and stress management workshops. One of the most effective ways to maintaining employee wellness during a disaster is organizing and offering workshops, trainings, and programs centered around fostering employees’ resiliency and improving their ability to cope with stress and other negative outcomes on their own. Similar to debriefing interventions, it is suggested that such wellbeing workshops are advertised as voluntary services, reinforcing employees’ damaged or lost sense of control and agency over their lives and giving them the ability to choose among various activities and programs that best suit their needs.5
Important topics to address in such programs include:
- Survivor’s Guilt. A common condition impacting individuals who may make it out of a disaster or crisis unscathed is survivor’s guilt, or remorse at having lived through a disaster while others died, or still having access to essential resources while others are suffering. Often overlooked, survivor’s guilt can have a detrimental impact on employees’ mental health, and is associated with lack of motivation, feelings of helplessness and despair, and thoughts of suicide.
- Psychosocial Training. In one study examining trauma-exposed employees, participants expressed interest in psychosocial training, citing that they felt it was important to know where to signpost others for help, know how to listen to their coworkers and be able to recognize symptoms of trauma in themselves and in their peers.1
- Self-Awareness. According to an exploratory study on the benefits of self-awareness and self-preparedness during workplace disasters, the ability to monitor one’s own physical and emotional needs are essential to minimizing the impact of disasters on individuals’ short and long-term health, and can prevent symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression, and allow shocked employees to process what happened and how they are feeling.6
- Work-Life Balance. After a disaster, many employees may feel pressure to get back to work, or may be hesitant toward taking time for themselves or dedicating any part of their day to personal care. Workshops can focus on teaching employees the importance of taking breaks to wind down, taking time to exercise, to connect with family and friends, and to connect with oneself.
- Individualized support. Essential to promoting self-preservative behaviors among employees is targeting individualized support to those who are struggling to take care of themselves, and who may be struggling in the workplace as a result. One service that has started to get more recognition among organizations and legislators alike is paid time off (PTO) and leave entitlements following a disaster, including community service leave, personal career’s leave, or long service leave. Offering alternative solutions to working arrangements or access to the workplace and insurance benefits are other important ways through which employers may offer personalized support.
- Stigma-reduction. Essential to ensuring that all support programs, resources, and services provided to employees are effective is making sure that employees feel empowered to access them. Research shows that many employees are resistant to seeking support following a disaster or trauma-related incident due to fears that if they spoke up about feeling traumatized, anxious, or depressed, that their peers and employers would view them as weak or creating unneeded problems.1 Additionally, many employees feel as though their employers do not have a good understanding of mental health issues and related needs—this includes the long-term effects of trauma or disaster that often go overlooked. In one study examining the longer-term effects on employee wellbeing two years after the 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquakes in New Zealand, researchers noted that staff became increasingly disillusioned by their organization’s crisis response plan, as they felt there was a lack of understanding not only from senior leaders, but from their coworkers as well, on the long-lasting effects that trauma can have on individuals’ mental health and overall wellbeing.5 By promoting help-seeking, acknowledging, and validating the varied mental health outcomes that employees may be experiencing following a disaster, and continuing to be vocal about one’s personal mental health experiences, employees will be more likely to utilize the services available to them, which will result in an expedient and holistic recovery after a crisis.