HR Professionals and the Christchurch Tragedy

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Associate Professor Bernard Walker from the University of Canterbury has written the following article to help HR Professionals at the time of this terrible tragedy…

An incident such as the terrorist mass tragedy in Christchurch, affects many people. The injured and deceased are part of the local community. Some are work colleagues, and many people know the victims through friends, family and social connections.

These events bring a wide range of emotions, including anger, grief, loss, and deep sadness. At times people have strong emotions, while others can feel numb and switch off.

Anxiety also increases. Many immigrant groups are currently experiencing uncertainty and anxiety. The wider community can also have a heightened sense of anxiety. There can be changes in how individuals think about life, and how safe we feel.  These are major changes, and it will take time, and in many cases support, for people to come to terms with them.


Work and Major Events
Work can be good, as it keeps people in contact with each other, and brings a sense of normality. But it has to be a supportive workplace where the leaders understand what people are experiencing.

Employers and HR leaders have a key role in this situation. One element is providing access to professional assistance, including counselling, which could occur either through EAP or community-based services.

But that’s only one part.  Disaster research shows that the workplace itself can also play an important role in recovery and healing. To understand this, it’s easiest to think of the Job-Demands Resources model (Bakker and Demerouti, 2008).

 

Balancing Demands and Resources
In normal situations, the Demands of a job are usually balanced out by the Resources. Those include our Personal resources, along with Job resources that include support from people like colleagues and leaders. Studies have shown, for example, that for teachers working in particularly demanding roles, factors like strong supervisor support, appreciation, and a positive organizational climate, significantly influence how well they cope.  But if the resources don’t balance the demands, a person moves into burnout and stress.

In a post-disaster situation, we broaden this out to look at life-demands also. Those life-demands can increase noticeably as people deal with disaster changes.

Employers and HR people have some influence in these situations. They can’t remove the life-demands, but they can make sure that the work demands are managed, so that employees don’t have unnecessary work pressures, on top of the disaster stressors.  That means checking on the workloads, work pressures, emotional and mental demands of people’s roles. Sometimes these are things that should have been sorted anyway, even if there wasn’t a major event.

 

Increasing the Resources
The workplace can also be a valuable resource to help balance the demands. Research into recovery from terror-and-tragedy identifies several key elements (Powley, 2009);

  • Making personal connections: leaders have a key role in showing compassion, and reaching out to individuals to check on how they are coping; this conveys the message that people do care about them, and it builds a sense of community and togetherness – but when this doesn’t happen, it can cause disconnection and frustration.
  • Sharing and connecting: when staff can get together and share their experiences, it promotes a focus on relationships and social connections; the collective experience of sharing connects people with others, and fosters confidence in working together again.
  • Information connections: providing full information is crucial, but it should be an interaction that connects individuals and groups; talking about key issues around wellbeing should be a conversation, rather than mass-emails

 

Leaders’ Situational Awareness
HR need to help all the leaders throughout an organisation to develop ‘situational awareness’. This means being alert and tuned-in to what is happening to their team, and being approachable. It’s about noticing, empathising, and reaching out to people, in a constant state of being aware of new developments in people’s circumstances.

For leaders to do this, you have to make this function, of connecting with team members, a key part of leaders’ roles, so that it’s not seen as separate from their other accountabilities.

The aim is to build a caring culture among all team members. If you’ve spent time building a collaborative, supportive team culture, this is when it pays dividends. Peer support happens as individuals become more mindful of others, noticing what is happening and thinking about the collective well-being of their team members

 

Is it that Simple?
It sounds simple, but the research behind these strategies shows it’s a lot more than just “being nice to each other”. Implementing these practices takes skill and relational abilities from all the leaders.

These dynamics are a key part of organisational resilience and recovery from major events.

Here’s a set of reminders for staff wellbeing in a major event.


Key Point 1:  People are not identical
People react in different ways as they deal with a tragedy. Some are deeply affected, some share their emotions easily, while others may take longer to process matters.  In this tragedy, specific communities are particularly affected.  Employers need to be alert to differences between people, and groups of people.


Key Point 2:  Situations keep changing
There are different phases in a disaster. These usually start with a period of heroism, where we value brave acts, large public memorials and fundraising. But after that phase we move into the long-haul of living with the changed realities. There are often long term effects that don’t go away, especially for the people affected the most.

Through each of these stages, individuals’ needs can change. People who seem to cope OK at the outset, may not always be like that. People have different types of needs at different times. Some types of needs to consider are social and emotional support, counselling, as well as practical things like flexible work arrangements to let workers be with families or have time and space to adjust.


Key Point 3:  Check the work pressures and demands
If people are dealing with significant stress from a major event, they don’t need additional pressure from work overloads in terms of work pressures, emotional and mental demands, or other very stressful aspects in their work role.


Key Point 4:  Situational Awareness a vital skill
There’s no magic instruction sheet to follow. Situational awareness means really being alert and tuned-in to what is happening to your team. You need to be approachable, otherwise your team won’t talk with you. You need to able to listen, so that you can hear what’s going on.

Ask the question “how’s it going”, but stay and really listen for the answer. Initiate communication, don’t wait for staff to come to you.   Be there; be on hand to chat with your staff. Just being ‘around’ shows that you are involved.

Research shows that in workplaces where employers think about their workers and understand what’s happening, there is much better recovery, compared to ones who don’t make this effort.

Face to face communication is better than emails about matters affecting staff wellbeing. Also, look for key team members who can update you on the team, and how people are coping.

Take a check on how your team view the workplace; is it a good place to work? There’s no point sending staff to EAP if they have to come back to a workplace with a lot of conflict and no support.


Key Point 5:  Humans are social
Research shows that much healing and recovery comes from people being together, sharing and supporting each other.  That needs leaders who can allow discussion about what people are feeling, and sharing emotions.  Morning teas, shared lunches and other events can be good for this.

In some workplaces, staff are like a group of friends; in those cases, allowing time for them to get together and share is an important part of healing.  In other cases, the workers’ networks are outside of the workplace, so it’s important to let them keep up those supportive connections.

 

Practice the Five Ways
The Five Ways to Wellbeing is a useful starting point for assisting your team to care for their wellbeing.  Help them to practice the five elements in their daily lives, and be a role model in doing this yourself, including having a good work-life balance. Take time out to rest and recover.

Your workplace can be a place for Connecting, holding events for staff to have fun, and do some Giving, with acts of kindness to others.  There’s a Work Toolkit for a longer term way of implementing these in your workplace.

 

Some other things to remember

  • You don’t have to be a social worker or a counsellor. But you do need to be an understanding human being, who sees and hears what is happening in your team.
  • Read more about the psychological and emotional changes that people experience after a disaster, this gives you more background– there’s a range of resources.
  • Listen to suggestions, respond to constructive feedback, and look for creative, low-cost ways to support your team, with options like flexible work for specific circumstances
  • Where can they get help? Discuss the type of assistance, like whether EAP is available through the company, and also how to access the range of services and support in the community
  • Situations changing? As people’s needs change, keep-on keeping an eye on wellbeing.

Written by Bernard Walker, University of Canterbury