Crises can happen to any workplace at any time. The type of crisis may vary—including natural disasters like fires or earthquakes; catastrophic workplace accidents; and workplace violence, harassment or abuse—but one constant that can help organizations improve their response is advance planning.
Common errors in workplace crisis intervention planning include denying that a crisis can happen, not prioritizing crisis preparedness, being unaware of potential risks and relying on untested plans, said Allan Ptack, M.S.W., M.Mgmt., RSW, RMFT, national director, Employee and Family Assistance Program—Stay at Work Services for Homewood Health Inc. in Montreal, Quebec.
The following strategies are based on Ptack’s “Conversation With” Q&A in the September/October 2019 issue of Plans & Trusts magazine as well as his “Crisis Intervention Strategies” presentation at the Canadian Health and Wellness Innovations Conference.
Building a Crisis Management Team
To build a workplace crisis management team, Ptack suggests that organizations identify one leader and key members of the team—for example, personnel from operations, legal, human resources, communications and risk management. Considerations should include logistical concerns such as having multiple worksites or team members who travel often. Ad hoc crisis management teams, in which people are pulled together as needed, can be a helpful addition to a preplanned team. There also are advisors—including third-party experts, employee assistance programs and mental health professionals—that can add valuable perspective and experience in times of crisis. But organizations should be careful that an increase in stakeholders isn’t bringing an increase in problems, especially if outside vendors are bringing their own agendas. “Bigger isn’t always better,” Ptack said. “But planning ahead is always better than being unprepared.”
Managing a Crisis
One of the keys to managing a crisis is maintaining a calm and positive demeanor during incredible levels of uncertainty. Employees look to management to see how they respond, so leaders should consider what the situation demands—Is it a personnel, contextual or systemic crisis?—and craft an immediate response strategy for emerging from the crisis. “Even if you don’t know exactly how to get there, it is important to strategize and start taking small steps right away,” Ptack said. Advance planning aids this process by having strategies in place and ready for implementation.
In times of crisis, employees need help with people issues like immediate aid and safety measures, information, reassurance, ongoing support and understanding, and a rapid return to productivity. Leadership should demonstrate that the organization cares about employees and their reactions to a crisis by reminding them of their strengths, capabilities and natural resilience to bounce back after distressing and traumatic events, Ptack said.
Effective communication during a crisis is not just about articulating a certain point of view. Leaders also need to actively listen by putting aside judgment and considering different perspectives. Pay attention to more than just the content of other people’s ideas. “Listen to their emotional tone as well,” Ptack said. “Both are crucial for mutual understanding and, ultimately, helping everyone to get back on their feet.”
Taking Steps for Workplace Crisis Preparedness
To recap, the following steps can help organizations get a start on their crisis management planning.
- Set up a crisis management team, identifying one leader and key team members.
- Prepare for the people issues that are likely to occur by readying safety measures, information, reassurance and ongoing support.
- Create templates for crisis communications to speed up the communications process and help leaders to remain calm and positive.
- Establish procedures for teams to follow, and then be sure to train them. Ptack said it’s important for teams to be tested on procedures and practice for an emergency so that they are ready when a real crisis occurs. To this end, organize simulations on a regular basis—annually, at a minimum.
Employers that prepare for a crisis will have a better ability to support individual employees in their recovery, Ptack noted, and that in turn can help the organization become more resilient and return to functionality more quickly.
[Related Reading: When Disaster Strikes . . . Employee Relief Options]
Robbie Hartman, CEBS
Editor, Publications, for the International Foundation
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