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Staff needs help after workplace trauma Crisis preparation

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Every business and organization has at one time or another faced what it considers to be a crisis. Yet, few of us will ever experience the horrifying crisis being faced by a group of citizens as well as the employees and owners of a local Colorado movie theatre where a PhD university student allegedly went on a killing spree.

You are also probably aware of the child sexual abuse scandal and crisis involving the leadership of Penn State University that has been unfolding for the past year. Jerry Sandusky, the former university football assistant, was accused and recently convicted on 45 counts of child molestation, accusations that date back many years.

Not only that, several senior university executives have been charged with perjury and/or have been suspended or dismissed because they did not follow their legal duty to report the abuse to authorities. Even the famous and beloved Penn State football coach and hero Joe Paterno was fired.

As you can imagine, both of these recent situations are public relations nightmares and during times like these, organizations seek professional advice to tactically manage these dangerous minefields. Penn State University, for instance, published monthly letters to its alumni, continued to be open and honest and took responsibility for the actions of its previous leaders. Finally, the university has taken the unprecedented step of removing a 2.2-metre-high bronze statue of its famous, fallen hero Paterno.

In both situations, the public has seen quick action with respect to providing support to the community victims of these tragedies. Yet, behind the scenes, it is also critical that support be given to employees. Incidents such as these create trauma for employees to such an extent that some will never be able to return to their current employer or workplace. For instance, many employee survivors of the 9/11 tragedy not only changed jobs but also changed professions and moved to another geographic location.

Thus, it is important for employers to take quick action to support their employees after a workplace trauma of any kind. The following suggestions encompass proven techniques for helping employees deal with the crisis and to return to a productive and satisfying work life as quickly as possible.

Employee psychological counselling -- Immediately placing counsellors in the workplace to provide personal, psychological counselling to all employees is critical because the impact of a traumatic situation can last for years. Trauma of any kind creates personal fear and worry as well as concern for personal safety and security. In these situations, you may also find some individuals will not experience any personal issues immediately and so will forgo counselling only to have their emotional wounds erupt later on.

Management training -- Managers and supervisors need training to understand employee responses to trauma events. They need to recognize and accept that emotional trauma is equally as powerful as the trauma resulting from the physical loss of a limb. They need to learn to recognize the symptoms of trauma and stress and to tactically intervene and guide employees toward help and assistance.

Open communication -- Meet employees as soon as possible to let them know what the employer has done and will be doing in the near future. Ensure employees know when counsellors are available and how to contact them to set up an appointment. Keep information flowing through multiple workplace channels.

Keep an open door -- Make yourself available to employees and respond to questions honestly and quickly. Sometimes, all you need to do is listen. Have employees share their feelings and their stories. Don't hesitate to share your own feelings and stories, but be careful you don't sound condescending. If you don't have answers, then let people know you will search out the answer.

Be flexible -- Recognize and accept that work productivity is going to decline for a brief time. Determine if you can request help and/or delay deadlines where possible. Be sure to contact customers and let them know of your issues and plans; most clients will be understanding.

Set up a buddy support system -- One-time meetings should be accompanied by a buddy system where employees help and support one another. Use your team to offer practical help such as checking with each other through phone calls or emails, both at work and at home. Support from colleagues will go a long way to revitalizing your team and will have long-term positive results overall.

Stay focused -- As a manager, your job is to help employees refocus and re-engage in their work. Thus, while it is difficult, it is important your conversations slowly steer away from a discussion of the traumatic events and back to the everyday issues of the workplace at the earliest time. Be careful because being too quick on this issue may give the wrong impression.

Refer to professional resources -- Should you find that an employee continues to experience the impact of their recent trauma, be sure to refer them either to your internal and/or community resources for ongoing assistance. These individuals need more intense help in terms of getting back on their feet. This includes strategies to raise their self-esteem and sense of control over their lives as well as regaining their personal confidence in terms of how to deal with personal threats.

Practise self-care -- Responding to the stress and trauma experienced by others in addition to dealing with your own stress can be overwhelming. Be sure to engage in self-care with respect to recognizing and dealing with your own stress symptoms. Seek counselling and implement strategies that will keep you strong. Find and engage with your own mentor and "buddy" to listen, share concerns and try out new strategies. Pay special attention to your body language as employees will model your behaviour and sense of confidence.

Trauma has a far greater negative impact on the workplace than previously imagined. It creates a significant and immediate drop in worker productivity that can last for weeks and months. And, if these emotional issues are not dealt with quickly, the symptoms can lead to more serious mental health issues that can literally shatter a workforce and compromise an entire organization.

No organization can be fully prepared for such horror as that caused by the Colorado massacre or the Penn State sex abuse scandal. However, I strongly advise that every organization have a crisis management plan and in particular, one that includes strategies to assist employees to overcome their personal trauma.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 H1

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