How to support employees through times of crisis


Need to know:

  • UK organisations need to have a clear critical incident response policy in place that covers practical and emotional matters.
  • Emotional and mental wellbeing support should be continuously communicated to employees, not just during times of crisis, so that they are aware that help is available to them.
  • If an employer implements and clearly communicates benefits such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and trauma counselling, it demonstrates a duty of care to its employees.

When a critical incident occurs in the UK, such as the recent terror atrocities in Manchester and London or the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, the safety and wellbeing of individuals is paramount in everyone’s mind.

The actions and sentiments of the wider world are mirrored in the microcosm of workplaces; employers take on a responsibility to ensure that their employees are safe. But what does this duty of care look like, and what support might employees need?

Critical incident response plan
The imperative to prepare for critical incidents has gained greater prominence in businesses as the threat level of terrorist attacks in the UK remains high, says Charles Alberts, senior consultant at Aon Employee Benefits. “Employers need to have a clear crisis, disaster, incident response policy that covers both preparedness for practical matters and also emotional matters,” he says.

The majority of organisations have a business continuity plan in place to protect the core functions of a business in light of an event. This might address IT systems or building safety and security, for example, but an employer also needs to apply the same thinking to its workforce. Anne Payne, executive director at Validium, says: “Traumatic events, by their nature, are unexpected bolts from the blue that no one anticipated when they set off for work that morning or that evening. Employers, particularly in light of what has happened over the very recent months, should think through what sort of support they want to put in place.”

Whatever plan an employer decides upon as its way forward should anything happen to involve its employees or its workplaces, this should be committed to paper and properly communicated across the organisation, says Payne. “It is something that needs to be talked about, needs to be planned, [and] people need to have buy-in,” she says.

While it may be a loose framework, because no one can ever fully predict what a critical incident might involve, a plan needs to show that the employer has thought about what to do physically and emotionally for its employees.

Having a crisis response plan in place can prove to be a safety crutch for employers should an incident impact their workforce. Sally Wilson, senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), says: “Employers that have invested in supporting peoples’ emotional health or mental health are the ones that are going to cope with that kind of scenario better or more effectively.”

From the outset, employers can offer practical support to staff. This could come in the form of helping them to reconnect with family, offering emergency leave to deal with practicalities or access to food and shelter. Employers also need to recognise that their duty of care to employees is multifaceted and is not dependent on their location, but would stretch to wherever an employee is in the world, says Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at Axa PPP Healthcare. “We know that personal problems outside of crisis will have an impact on an [employee’s] ability to perform in the workplace,” he explains. “It starts to erode performance, so any forward-thinking organisation will appreciate that no matter where its staff are in the world, whether their problems are personal or work-related, to have some kind of support is really important.”

Managing the impact of a critical incident
Following a critical incident, employers need to first reach out to employees and identify those that may have been impacted. Charlotte Copeland, managing director at SafeHaven Trauma Centre, says: “Are they people that were directly involved? Are they witnesses? Are they neither of those but are very close to the people or a person that was affected? Then [there is] the ripple effect out from that. It may well be that many people are shocked in an organisation, but it’s also about identifying strategically who are the different people that have been affected and to what degree.”

This will give employers a lead on what kind of support is most appropriate for different employees.

A crisis can affect employees in different ways but communication from their employer can demonstrate not only that it recognises and supports its workforce during difficult times, but also the support services that are available, either through the organisation or otherwise. Winwood says: “It’s really [about] making everyone in an organisation aware that any national disaster, crisis or terror atrocity can have ripples across an organisation, and being honest about that.

“Not mentioning it doesn’t mean that people won’t be impacted by it. Avoiding it, not talking about it, hiding it, just means people struggle in silence. It’s an opportunity for organisations to really promote what is available, assess what they have in place and to ask people what they would find supportive.”

Trauma support
Employers may already have an employee assistance programme (EAP) in place, which they can re-communicate to staff to make them aware how the service can offer support in a time of crisis. For example, the number for the EAP could be printed on employees’ security passes, which they tend to keep with them for most of the time while at work, says Alberts.

Payne adds: “[Employees] can be reminded that they have an EAP provision, but [employers] also need to make sure that the EAP, or mental support organisation, offers specialised trauma support. It’s a different type of support and can be very practical.”

A critical incident stress management (CISM) policy is imperative in managing the impact of a critical incident, says SafeHaven’s Copeland, which provides CISM support services to organisations on how to handle stress and workplace trauma. A policy will clearly detail who an organisation’s designated personnel are: who will take responsibility for what and how that is handled depending on the scale of the situation. “We identify key personnel within an organisation and provide them with training specifically around trauma-focused psychological first aid and skills-based training on how to emotionally decompress a situation and support a person before they go home that first day,” she says.

There are three key points involved in managing the impact of critical incidence, says Copeland. These are: to mitigate the impact on an individual, to facilitate recovery, and to restore an individual’s natural, reactive response. The first 24 hours after an incident are critical in helping to mitigate the impact, something that CISM training can deal with. “If [employers] can give [employees] a very structured emotional decompression, it makes a significant difference in helping recovery,” he explains. “Then, the organisation is trained to identify if the person is recovering in the way [experts] would normally expect. When an organisation has personnel trained in that, it means they can be immediately proactive and responsive, so people that are affected know that they are supported and they’re also helped to recover right from the get-go.”

While mental health first aid or critical incident training can include any member of staff, line manager training is also an essential tool, says the IES’ Wilson. “It really pays to have line managers who are really good people managers as well; it’s about asking the right questions, not being too intrusive, but being able to pick up when somebody needs some support,” she explains.

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The importance of compassion
Compassionate leadership within organisations is something that employees will respond well to, says Payne. “It’s very much [about] being there for people and showing that [they] care,” she says. “Businesses need to think about how prepared [their] senior people and management team would be should this happen; ‘how can we get our leaders to be comfortable in responding to people’s basic needs with compassion?’”

Although employers cannot control every aspect of their employees’ lives, they can show that they have taken all reasonable care to be as proactive as they can as a responsible employer. And, the human population is incredibly resilient; having difficult conversations and communicating crisis response plans helps to build that. Winwood says: “Facing up to things, talking about keeping people safe, having things in place should there be a crisis, isn’t going to erode resilience in teams; it’s actually going to demonstrate support.”