Workplace Wellbeing

How HR Leaders Can Respond During Crises with Emotional Support

When a crisis hits, the impact on workplace teams can be profound. Learn how HR leaders can implement strategies that support employee well-being during difficult times.

Written by
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Dr. Kerry Symon, PsyD
Director, Clinical Partnerships
Clinically reviewed by
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    Many of us find deep personal value in our professional connections. Daily interactions humanize our work and provide motivation and meaning to our tasks. Think about the moments we look forward to, like meetings, coffee breaks, or casual conversations, which bring joy to our workday.  

    Work relationships play a vital role in creating a meaningful work culture. So, the loss of an employee can significantly impact us and our teams. 

    For example, while overseeing NYC's employee assistance program (EAP), I received a call from a manager seeking support for her employees. A co-worker died suddenly, leaving the office in shock.

    The situation left people with feelings of sadness, uncertainty, and grief. We gave the manager information to connect people with immediate individual support services. We provided resources for managers, equipping them with empathic language to acknowledge their pain and offer support. 

    Within 72 hours, we set up grief groups where people could come together in a safe and confidential space. I facilitated discussions to allow people to share their feelings, support each other, and begin coping during that difficult time.  

    During crises like the loss of a co-worker, HR leaders are often on the frontlines in the workplace, supporting and guiding the organization through its challenges.

    The critical role of HR leaders in crisis response

    When a crisis impacts the workforce—such as violence, natural disasters, or global critical incidents—HR leaders play a crucial role in responding effectively. Your immediate response and long-term support influence how trauma affects your employees’ mental health and emotional well-being.

    Prioritizing crisis response elevates the trust your employees have in the organization and highlights your employees’ strengths, resilience, and emotional protective factors. Additionally, it helps identify those who may be more vulnerable and struggling, enabling you to facilitate the extra support they may need. 

    To cultivate a workplace that prioritizes employees’ emotional well-being during crises, focus on the following immediate actions:

    • Ensure senior leadership communicates promptly to all employees, providing factual details of the situation, how HR and People leaders are responding, and contact points for assistance 
    • Demonstrate active listening and engage in honest conversations led with empathy
    • Offer immediate support and easy access to mental health resources
    • Collaborate with relevant departments to address practical needs

    Mental health considerations in workplace crisis

    When a crisis occurs, employees may experience shock, distress, grief, uncertainty, anxiety, fear, or sleep disturbances. Some may also experience a re-triggering of past traumatic experiences. 

    If left unaddressed, these reactions can significantly impact an employee’s well-being at work and in their personal life, leading to decreased motivation, productivity, difficulties in attention to detail, connections to co-workers, or increased absenteeism.

    When leaders prioritize the mental health dynamic in a workplace crisis response, employees are less likely to suffer from the lingering effects of trauma. You and your HR team are the key stakeholders for the mental health initiatives that will help mitigate the worst impacts of a crisis. 

    The transformation to an emotionally supportive and resilient workplace requires a well-researched crisis response plan and the proper training for your team.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

    Preparing a crisis response plan 

    A well-prepared crisis response plan shows you’re putting your employees first. It ensures their basic human needs are prioritized, providing a renewed sense of security and community while validating their emotional reactions. 

    By proactively planning for a diverse array of workplace crises and implementing a crisis communication protocol in your HR strategies, you can achieve the best outcomes for your workforce. 

    To effectively enhance emotional support for employees, it’s essential to leverage proven best practices in your emergency policies and procedures. This approach minimizes short-term impacts, such as panic, stress, or anger, and a crisis’s potential long-term emotional effects.

    Consider the following checklist to implement a crisis response resource plan that prioritizes emotional support for employees:

    • Provide employees access to critical information and resources they can rely on during a crisis. This includes a comprehensive list of contacts and resources tailored to specific workplace crises, such as violence, suicide, natural disasters, or hazardous materials accidents.  
    • Conduct quarterly information briefings for employees, outlining potential emergency crises in the workplace. In addition to familiarizing established emergency procedures, help employees learn how to process, understand, and plan for their emotional response in a psychologically safe way.

    Mental health-based crisis response training 

    Supporting the emotional well-being of affected employees requires regularly scheduled crisis response training. 

    Continuous learning enables your team to continually enhance and refine their crisis response skills in the context of mental health. It also strengthens situational awareness, enabling your team to recognize the warning signs of mental health challenges or distress in emotionally impacted employees. 

    Consider incorporating training programs such as Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) or Psychological First Aid (PFA). MHFA equips participants with the ability to recognize symptoms of mental health problems and understand how to assist someone experiencing a mental health issue. 

    PFA is an evidence-informed care model designed to reduce initial distress caused by traumatic events and promote short- and long-term resiliency and coping. 

    Promoting a culture of compassion and resilience

    Your HR team can serve as advocates (and change agents) for fostering a compassionate and supportive workplace culture that prioritizes the well-being of employees. By championing mental health initiatives, such a culture instills resiliency in employees, enabling them to persevere through crises.

    Resilience is the ability to cope with the trauma, tragedy, or physical and mental safety threats that crises may bring. It’s deeply ingrained in mental and emotional well-being, protecting against developing mental health conditions that can manifest after a serious crisis.

    Proactive measures and a comprehensive understanding of the emotional impacts on employees are essential to prevent major mental health crises from emerging in the aftermath of traumatic events.

    Mental health support strategies that can enhance the emotional recovery of employees include the following:

    1. Psychoeducation on the immediate impact of a crisis and the significance of self-care and early intervention. Communicating what employees may experience after a critical event and providing self-help strategies can mitigate the negative impact.
    2. Follow-up screenings and access to appropriate support resources prevent the onset of more severe mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can result from trauma.
    3. Regular communication through emails or other channels to keep your HR team top-of-mind among employees, as a resource, reassuring them of the availability of an open forum for support whenever needed.
    4. Incorporating automatic follow-up conversations with employees regularly after a crisis, emphasizing quick access to mental health care and resources. 

    How to establish a safe and supportive environment 

    A psychologically safe and supportive work environment gives employees greater comfort in sharing their personal experiences and emotional impacts. Here are three effective ways to build this kind of environment:

    1. Normalize honest conversations: Encourage open and honest discussions around mental health, leading with empathy, understanding, and trust. This peer-to-peer engagement decreases the stigma that prevents employees from communicating the emotional impacts of workplace crises.
    2. Promote transparency and trust: Foster a culture of transparency and trust between employees and People leaders within the organization. When employees feel supported and respected, they’re more comfortable discussing their emotional well-being. 
    3. Establish streamlined communication channels: Create new avenues for confidential communication, allowing employees to share their struggles and experiences after a crisis safely and privately. 

    It’s essential to acknowledge that emotional recovery from a crisis is a gradual process that may take years, and each employee will respond to a crisis differently. Therefore, a long-term commitment to a diverse mental health support system is necessary to accommodate employees’ individual needs and pace when seeking help.

    One effective solution to support employees’ emotional recovery after a crisis is offering a comprehensive mental health benefit, like Spring Health. These innovative programs have proven instrumental in ensuring employees receive the best support, tailored to their unique needs, during difficult times.

    Discover ways to support your team’s emotional well-being amidst the challenges of racial violent events. 

    About the Author
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    Dr. Kerry Symon, PsyD
    Director, Clinical Partnerships

    Dr. Kerry Symon is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years in the mental health field. Starting with the 9/11 Disaster Service Center, Dr. Symon has specialized in evidenced-based crisis and disaster response care models. They have led mental health mobile crisis teams, spearheaded a measurement-based cognitive behavioral treatment program for disaster survivors, and played a pivotal role in NYC's EAP's response and support for employees and leaders during the pandemic.

    About the clinical reviewer
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