Handling Workplace Emotions Following a Disaster

[Editor’s note: The following guest post from Dr. Vali Hawkins Mitchell and Kristen Noakes-Fry takes a look at an aspect of crisis management for which many managers are extremely unprepared.]

When I arrived in New York City in September of 2001, I knew what my job was, even though my mind and heart were shattered by recent events. A disaster is a complicated event affecting numerous connections, intersections, links, and systems of people, places, things, and ideas. Disasters produce changes in human emotions that are both predictable and unpredictable. The regular ways of relating do not work during or immediately following a disaster. Normal cues are missing, images are distorted, and normal emotions and thoughts are temporarily incongruent.

Just as disasters can instantly level buildings, they can just as rapidly change longstanding patterns of power, work, authority, and perceptions among the people in your workplace. If you are aware that altered states of behavior are often quite shocking, but short-lived, you can prepare yourself – and other managers in your organization – to be the person who can bring people back to “normal” more quickly.

  1. Include everybody: Involve people in helping, even if it is a fabricated task like “we need someone to empty the wastebaskets.” Busy people become more focused and feel more secure. An employee to whom you give “power and control” over the wastebaskets may feel less overwhelmed by the power of the disaster – and may return to competent functioning more quickly. Washing dishes, sweeping, dusting, organizing a phone tree, serving water, and other ordinary tasks may keep people from sliding into an emotional abyss of helplessness.
  2. Express emotions: Human emotions are okay. In fact, they are necessary to the healthy process of emotional recovery. Numbness is not healthy. If you are uncomfortable talking about emotions, you need to identify someone who is more comfortable and delegate such interactions to that person. You and the other managers do not need to be the “bulwark” of non-emotion, but it is also your job to lead through this adversity toward recovery. Quick check-ins with employees – without getting deeply involved in their emotions – are very helpful. This process of “defusing” emotions is a brief respite and release. Seek help if you need support.
  3. Communicate openly: Don’t make employees pretend nothing happened. They can handle facts better than innuendo. Be as transparent as possible. During and after major disasters, survivors are anxious to know the latest news, when dozens of people hold bits and pieces of information.  It is better to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out as soon as I can,” than to say, “I have no clue” and leave people in the dark with no sense of leadership. Expect people to be distracted. If your disaster is receiving ongoing media coverage, you may want to have a television in the office for a few days for people to watch as they work.
  4. Listen and debrief: Create opportunities for employees to be debriefed by trained employees, volunteers, professionals, or consultants specially trained in mental health disaster practices. Continue to communicate and move forward. Check in with people to see if they are moving forward, or if they are beginning to lose ground and need a different kind of intervention.

Although a disaster can be difficult for everyone, it can be an excellent time to gain more training. Review every step, before, during, and after, with an eye on successes and areas that need improvement. Another disaster may be in the future.

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Vali Hawkins Mitchell, PhD, LMHC, is a Certified Traumatologist. Details, instructions, plans, and examples for “emotional continuity management” in an organization may be found in her book, The Cost of Emotions in the Workplace: The Bottom Line Value of Emotional Continuity Management (Rothstein Publishing, 2013). She consults and coaches individuals and companies and has also directly supported survivors and first responders during such disasters as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami, and most recently with US Military troops returning from active duty in Afghanistan.

Kristen Noakes-Fry, MA, is Executive Editor at Rothstein Publishing, a division of Rothstein Associates Inc. Previously, she was a Research Director, Information Security and Risk Group, Gartner, Inc.; Associate Editor, Datapro; and Associate Professor of English, Atlantic Cape College.

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