Assess the situation
The leader’s first task is to obtain as much information about the event as possible. If there are immediate safety concerns, staff should be assisted in moving to a safe location where their basic needs can be met and they can contact family members. Misinformation and rumors are common in the wake of a traumatic event. Verify information given to staff and provide updates as needed. Designate someone on the leadership team or in Human Resources as the contact person that staff can call upon for help and resources.
Understand how people may react
People process traumatic experiences in different ways depending on the severity of the trauma, their ability to cope with stress, and the help and support they receive from family, friends, and others in the aftermath. Normal reactions to a traumatic event can include:
- Shock, confusion, and denial
- Intense emotional reactions such as fear and anxiety
- Flashbacks or “reliving” the event
- Feeling jumpy and being easily startled
- Sadness and depression
- Guilt, shame, or despair
- Anger and irritability
- Emotional numbness and feelings of detachment from others
- A sense of helplessness and vulnerability
- Problems focusing
- Physical reactions such as a racing heart, bodily aches and pains, dizzy spells, appetite changes, fatigue, and insomnia
Some people might recover quickly from stress reactions while others have delayed reactions. It is important for leaders to acknowledge that they too may be deeply affected by the traumatic event, and may also need emotional support as they assist their staff.
Strategies for supporting staff members
How you can help
It may take some time for workplace productivity to return to a normal level. Ways to support staff during the recovery period include the following:
- Allow staff flexibility with schedules and time off as needed. Recognize that people may have difficulty concentrating and may need more time than usual to complete complex tasks.
- Provide resources such as educational materials and hand-outs on topics such as coping with trauma and loss and support groups.
- Post information about your program and remind staff if there are counseling benefits available to them and their family members.
- Keep the lines of communication open and inform staff of any relevant news regarding the traumatic event.
- Provide opportunities for staff to discuss their feelings and experiences with co-workers.
- Be present and visible; show concern for staff members’ well-being.
- Stress the importance of the need for staff to take good care of themselves during this stressful period.
Leaders should check in with staff who may be particularly vulnerable, either because of their involvement with the event or their experience with trauma. In addition, leaders should be aware of and sensitive to cultural differences and religious attitudes that influence people’s responses to disaster and critical incidents.
A company response to the crisis, such as a memorial, vigil or community event, may also help staff process their emotions and provide closure.
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