Bad things happen: In the past year, Americans have coped with hurricanes, floods, fires, other natural disasters, and mass shootings. When a tragedy strikes, work deadlines, meetings, and career plans can often take a back seat to shock, disbelief, and grief. Employees may need reassurance, flexibility, and support. Read on to learn how to make your workplace a secure, safe, and supportive environment for your employees in the wake of a crisis.
Don’t Ignore It
Humans tend to avoid difficult conversations because they don’t know what to say or do. But it’s almost always better to gather employees and address what’s happening. People will talk about a distressing event regardless, and it’s best to inform everyone with accurate and up-to-date information. To prevent feeling tongue-tied, draw up guidelines for talking about tragedies in the workplace.
Here are some strategies you may want to include:
- Explain what happened and tell employees you share their shock and sadness.
- Assure employees they are safe and explain the company’s security or disaster preparedness measures, if appropriate.
- Ask if anyone has been personally affected.
- Explain how the company will support employees through the tragedy.
- Remind employees to be careful about each other’s feeling and make an effort to be kinder.
- Hold a moment of silence for everyone affected by the tragedy.
- Check in with employees one on one to see how they’re coping.
Be flexible with workloads
Expect productivity to lag after a tragedy. Grief can make people dazed, confused, and preoccupied. Concentrating on detailed tasks may be nearly impossible for many people in the wake of a crisis. On the other hand, some people want to throw themselves into work as a distraction.
Because people respond differently to tragic events, it’s best to have flexible workload options available for people coping directly with a tragedy, such as:
- Paid time off
- Flexible work arrangements, such as part-time hours or work-from-home opportunities
- An emergency fund to be used in employee crisis situations
Make sure you comply with state, federal, and local laws such as the Family Medical Leave Act, which allows eligible employees to take unpaid leave to recover from a serious health issue or care for a relative who’s been affected by a disaster.
Don’t be surprised if employees struggle with an event even if they’re not directly affected. It’s normal for people to experience physical symptoms such as headaches, listlessness, and nausea as well as cognitive and emotional symptoms (confusion, memory problems, anxiety, despair, panic, insomnia, and decreased hunger) in response to disturbing events. Cut employees some slack in the days after a crisis.
Let people gather
Most people have a deep need to gather and connect after a stressful or disturbing event. Many people are also comforted by having as much information as possible. Let your workplace be a safe space for employees to process the tragedy and grieve. Provide a place, such as a conference room or cafeteria, for people to assemble. If possible, furnish it with a news outlet, such as a television or computer, where employees can get up-to-date information. Consider providing meals or snacks, which may encourage quieter employees to come and discuss what’s happening.
An employee assistance program (EAP) is a relatively inexpensive way to support employees through any crisis. An EAP provides employees with confidential help from counselors or legal experts when they most need it. Depending on the size of your company, you could create an in-house EAP or contract with an external provider. Most EAPs offer employees up to a dozen free in-person or phone counseling sessions with experts trained in violent risk assessment, stress assessment, substance abuse intervention, and major life events. Access to free counseling may be a lifesaver during a crisis.
Also, consider providing employees with grief training as part of your employee training program. It’s hard to know what to say when a colleague’s in the midst of a crisis. By talking about supportive ways to handle grief in the workplace, you’ll make uncomfortable conversations easier.
Provide outlets for helping
One of the worst things about a crisis is that people often feel powerless afterward. No matter what the crisis, encourage employees, if they feel compelled, to help in concrete, meaningful ways.
If the tragedy affects anyone in the office personally, here are ways employees can help:
- Organize a meal drive
- Offer help with errands, babysitting, transportation, or paperwork
- Donate paid leave
- Research assistance programs and resources
If the tragedy happened far away and doesn’t affect anyone personally, consider these ways of helping:
- Provide employees with a list of organizations assisting with the aftermath
- Match employees’ donations to a charity
- Hold a raffle and donate the proceeds to a charity
- Sponsor a blood drive
- Offer paid time off for employees to volunteer for an organization helping with relief efforts
Psychologists used to believe there were two outcomes from traumatic situations: recovery or post-traumatic stress disorder, a debilitating condition where a person struggles to recover from hardship. More recently, however, psychologists have been focusing on another common outcome from trauma called post-traumatic growth, which is when adversity eventually leads to positive change in a person’s life. Humans are incredibly resilient. By planning ahead for bad times, you’ll help your employees weather storms, bounce back, and be a stronger and more connected