Magazine article Risk Management

Managing the Human Impact of Crisis

Magazine article Risk Management

Managing the Human Impact of Crisis

Article excerpt

As a psychologist who has devoted his career to helping companies cope with the effects of natural disasters, organizational crises industrial accidents and workplace violence, I am sometimes introduced as the expert who consults on the "soft side" of crisis management. I always, politely but firmly, take issue with this characterization. When we regard paying attention to the effects of critical incidents on employees, their families and the surrounding community as a soft issue, we jeopardize the success of the entire enterprise.

Every crisis is a human crisis. The biggest mistake that a company can make in its planning for crisis management and emergency response is to focus on systems, operations, infrastructure and public relations and ignore the people. There is no business recovery without employees who are healthy enough to return to work and be productive. They need to be assured of their safety, have their trust in leadership reinforced and have their loyalty rewarded. Only then will employees remain over the short and long haul.

The costs associated with workplace crises are not limited to health care dollars, absenteeism rates, legal battles or increased insurance rates. Traumatic events can severely impair trust between workers, their peers and their managers if mishandled. Without proper planning, a natural disaster, act of violence or corporate crisis can disrupt normal group processes, interfere with the delivery of crucial information and temporarily impair management effectiveness. These impacts on the human infrastructure of a company can undermine even well-designed programs to protect vital data, preserve market share and uphold stockholder value. Indeed, failure to acknowledge and plan for the risks to employee health, functioning and loyalty can doom the best risk management strategy.

Human Impact Crisis Planning

The field of crisis management has continued to mature, with increasingly sophisticated approaches to emergency response planning, business continuity planning,security, preservation of information and restoration of critical business functions. These are all crucial components, but what is overlooked is the profound effect of the event on the survivors and witnesses-the employees.

Many case examples cite the importance of attending to the human impact of workplace crises. From fatal accidents to violence to product and organizational breakdowns, they all teach the same lessons, and point to the same basic guidelines.

1. Understand and plan for the physical and emotional health of employees at all levels.

The effects of psychological stress in the aftermath of crisis events can cause a range of potentially disabling conditions, especially if not prevented by timely intervention. In the days and weeks surrounding a crisis, traumatic stress reactions may produce symptoms of avoidance, concentration problems, depression and feelings of vulnerability and sadness. Long term, they can cause substance abuse, mental and physical illness, and marital problems. If these effects on employees are not recognized, they can disrupt normal business functioning, as well as expose the company to direct costs from absences, health care expenses, workers compensation claims and lawsuits.

The aftermath of the September 11 attacks provides a striking example of these effects on emotional health. Businesses directly affected carried out substantial efforts to provide emotional support to employees who were traumatized and shaken by grief. These effects, however, were not limited to employees living and working in New York and Washington, D.C. In 2001, the New England Journal of Medicine published a nationwide survey of 560 adults, taken just days after September 11. It found that 44 percent had substantial signs of stress, 90 percent experienced stress to some degree and 35 percent of their children were noticeably affected. The costs of these effects cannot be overestimated, considering the $300 million businesses spend annually on depression and other stress- and mental health-related conditions. …

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