This post was originally written to advise employers around supporting their employees during the devastating Nelson fires in February 2019, but remains relevant for many disaster and crisis scenarios.
The impact of environmental disasters and traumatic events tends to result in feelings of insecurity and collective vulnerability. Some of your employees may experience a range of reactions to an unsettling event like this, including anxiety and worry about the consequences and aftermath of the disaster.
In the case of the Nelson fires, many will be concerned about the damages or potential damage to their homes and/or property, and the impact on their families. Some people may become distracted, anxious, and less productive in their day-to-day functioning. These feelings are all perfectly normal and understandable.
Employers will find some employees are more affected than others. Employees’ reactions also depend on their current life stressors and their association with previous natural disasters or traumatic events. It is natural that during this time, and for some ensuing period, collective productivity of your staff may diminish. At the same time, a crisis tends to bring people together.
Typical Stress Reactions
Employees are resilient; however some will exhibit more reactions and may need additional support in order to cope.
Typically, some people experiencing stress do not openly communicate their anxieties. Often, the only observable signs may be behaviours such as:
- Increased absenteeism
- Difficulty concentrating, attending to tasks, easily distracted
- Uncharacteristic decline or change in performance
- Unusual irritation and agitation
- Unusually high expectations directed at managers to answer questions and ensure employee safety
- Withdrawal as a result of concerns about financial security, housing and other potential losses
- Expressions of anxiety and vulnerability
- Active conversations about safety and personal crisis plans
- Preoccupation with media reports
How Employers can support Employees
Disasters are strongly related to a loss of control and influence over what is happening. Therefore, a primary consideration for employers is to provide a supportive environment in which control, confidence and competence can be regained. It is helpful to:
- Acknowledge employees’ concerns in a respectful and non-intrusive manner.
- Feel free to acknowledge some of your own concerns and reactions to the crisis.
- Recognise and acknowledge, in a non-judgmental way, that employees may have different emotions, attitudes and opinions related to this situation.
- Remind employees that they each have a very unique and resourceful way of coping with stressful events and to continue to draw on their natural resilience.
- Urge employees to reach out to people they feel close to.
- Inform staff experiencing anxiety that these feelings may vary from day to day and may be different than the feelings and thoughts of those around them.
- Prompt employees to focus their attention on matters over which they have influence.
- Demonstrate that you are as concerned about your employees as you are about work objectives.
- Address critical changes in performance in a timely, clear manner while conveying understanding of anxiety and stress for employees.
- Provide information regarding dedicated resources to address specific concerns.
Key Considerations for Managers
- Be visible and manage employee anxiety and fear by walking around, listening, asking questions and being seen as delivering solutions. Effectiveness is increased if leaders receive information and coaching on how to manage affected employees.
- Check in and communicate regularly with your employees. Be honest with them, act in good faith and keep them well informed. Should this crisis directly affect your business, conduct regular and daily communications. This should ideally occur at the same time each day and contain practical and accurate information for employees.
- If your workplace has been directly affected by the disaster/crisis, ensure that all key roles and responsibilities relating to the effective management of employees are clearly understood and communicated.
- Provide employees with clear information regarding how to access internal and external resources/support. If you have an EAP (Employment Assistance Programme) provider remind your employee how to make contact with them.
- Reaching out and supporting employees at a time when you may also be affected by the situation can be stressful, so it is essential that you take good care of yourself and seek consultation and/or support, if needed.
What if the crisis mean I can’t provide my employee/s with work, or they can’t get to work?
If you are unsure about your ability to provide employees with work due to evacuations, quarantine/isolation, fire risk and/or health and safety concerns, or if your employee/s may not be able to work due to these events – we suggest you:
- Make contact with the Ministry of Social Development. They may be able to provide temporary financial support.
- Talk to your insurer, as you may have provisions for business continuity.
- Check your obligations as an employer under any relevant clauses in your Employment Agreement.
- Consider whether you are able to offer your employees either annual, sick, special, unpaid or advanced leave (or a combination of these), or provide them with options to work flexibly/from home in the interim. Here are some suggestions from MBIE.
If you’re unsure, seek advice – you can contact our team here.