There is a growing recognition that stress, depression, and anxiety are leading causes of disability and absenteeism from the modern workplace. In the UK alone, workplace stress results in the loss of 13 million workdays every year.

Prioritizing and promoting mental health are vital during normal times—and in times of crisis, this need is even more pressing. The current global health crisis surrounding COVID-19 is shining a spotlight on the negative impact of stress on employee productivity and wellbeing, with nearly half of American adults reporting that their mental health has been negatively affected by COVID-19 and its repercussions. 

The role of HR has expanded in the modern workplace with an increased focus on fostering healthy business culture that fosters both productivity and employee welfare. An important aspect of this expanded role is in crisis management. While even under normal market conditions, robust HR involvement in an organization is vital, in times of crisis it becomes critical. 

When a crisis hits it’s imperative to protect business systems, processes, and profits, but the most important asset to be protected is employees. Placing workers’ wellbeing at the forefront of crisis management strategies will contribute to the sustainability of your business and this requires opening up effective lines of communication. 

The first step in protecting the mental health of your employees is giving them the space to talk about how they’re feeling, including any impact on their productivity. This openness, however, doesn’t come naturally to employees in cutthroat job markets who are fighting to keep their jobs. That’s why it’s so important for HR to openly and explicitly promote honest communication.

4 tips for encouraging communication in times of crisis

Productivity and continuity of business operations is always the top priority when a crisis strikes, but this should never be at the expense of employees’ psychological wellbeing. HR is positioned to communicate what needs to get done and how to do it but is also equipped to provide support to employees in distress. Of course, this can only take place if HR’s role in mitigating the crisis is communicated. Let your team know that HR is available, well-informed, and organized by communicating constructively.  

The role of HR in crisis management is to support employees, but this doesn’t mean professional boundaries should come down. Avoid prying or asking too many personal questions if an employee approaches you with a problem. Instead, focus on offering resources and workplace accommodations.

1. Confidentiality

When faced with a crisis, transparency is important. But unless confidentiality is guaranteed, it is unlikely that employees will feel comfortable sharing challenges. Left bottled up, these challenges will eventually affect performance and company morale. HR has an opportunity to guide solutions with discretion and in a way that protects the privacy of individual employees. Getting control of the situation, as well as the flow of information, will encourage employees to communicate when they need help.

2. Open-door policy

When a crisis hits, one of the first messages HR should communicate is an open-door policy. Giving employees the space to vocalize issues and concerns will preempt the spread of confusion and anxiety. Making sure that HR leaders are available during difficult times will also help keep a finger on the pulse of employee morale.

With a better understanding of what team members are going through, HR can assist management to strategize effective solutions benefitting both employees and the company. Another way to assess how employees are weathering a crisis, consider sending a short anonymous survey at regular intervals. Utilize this data to respond to oversights or gaps in your crisis management strategy.

3. Navigating between employees and managers

A company in crisis will often adopt an all-hands-on-deck mentality. Employees may find this unmanageable and, if the workload is not adjusted, the likelihood of burnout increases. HR can mitigate this effect by navigating between management and employees, issuing clear guidelines to protect life/work balance.

Another way that HR can strengthen communication between managers and employees is to train managers to interact with employees during a crisis. This may include how to implement reasonable goals and schedules, how to initiate communication with an employee in distress, and how to encourage employee self-care. Creating useful guides and toolkits that emphasize team building and healthy communication can assist managers in implementing effecting crisis management strategies.

HR is also where employees can turn to if they require assistance with management. Whether there is a conflict that needs mediating or an employee needs guidance on how to approach their manager with a specific request or concern, HR is the address.

4. Instituting employee assistance policies

Show employees that the company is committed to their wellbeing by offering a robust Employee Assistance Program, or EAP. These programs offer free, anonymous mental health counseling to employees in distress. If possible, expand benefits during a crisis and encourage employees to communicate what additional assistance is needed. Clearly explain what is offered in your company’s EAP or other services, including providing links or phone numbers to make reaching out easier. Here are some benefits to considering including in your crisis management strategy:

  • Sick leave 
  • Compassionate leave 
  • Work from home 
  • Reduce copays
  • Mental health support
  • Subsidized loans

These are concrete ways to support employees during a crisis that will leave a lasting impression. Studies have found that EAP services, including counseling, improves occupational functioning and engenders employee engagement and retention. When the crisis is over, your employees will either be strengthened by their workplace or not. This will depend in large part to effective HR leadership and communication.

Summary

An unexpected crisis can upend even the most established business and with it the lives of employees. When disaster strikes, HR plays a vital role in maintaining internal organizational integrity and in broadcasting a unified message to external stakeholders. However, the psychological wellbeing of employees should remain the top priority. To promote employee health, HR must rapidly formulate an internal crisis communication strategy to convey information and offer support to team members consistently, clearly, and with compassion.


From Shayna Hodkin

Shayna lives in south Tel Aviv with two dogs and a lot of plants. She writes poems and reads tarot.