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The Human Factor in Crisis Management

The Human Impact of a Crisis

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Media and society encourage us to think more about the economic and structural damage of a crisis, than the human impact. It’s only natural that when coverage of a major event – like the Beirut explosion – occurs, we soon forget about the human impact this would have had on those people. As awful as it is, something new takes over the coverage and we navigate this instead.

In your organisation, a similar mindset will severely damage your culture and output.

More and more team leaders are considering how they look after their people than the administration of their business – which is a good thing. But, there are things to identify in this approach.

Types of Crisis Events

To better understand how employees are likely to react in a crisis, we need to look at the different types of crisis events that they may be exposed to. Incidents can be categorised into the following four types of events:

Natural Disasters vs Man-Made


A natural disaster, like the 2011 Christchurch Earthquakes, can bring about injury or even death to personnel or damage and destruction to an organisations infrastructure. In the Christchurch Earthquake, this was certainly the case.

There may also be an act of violence or hostility perpetrated by a single individual against an organisation, it’s personnel and it’s property. Let’s imagine that the incident above was a result of a violent act by an individual and not an act of nature. A lone gunman who walks into a place of work and shoots randomly with the same results or worse. The human reaction to either event is extremely distressing; however, one can speculate that the tendency of people is to see acts of nature as just that – therefore the reaction is usually one of grief, sadness, questioning of – or returning to faith. In contrast, in an incident involving acts of violence, there are often all of the above, but also accompanied by anger, anxiety, apprehension about safety and security, etc.

When the March 15th shooting occurred in Christchurch, the following week so many organisations relocate their staff and consider work-from-home policies.

To make things worse is a tendency for the media to be more involved in an act of violence rather than if the incident had been an Earthquake or weather event. The runtime for the story is protracted involving stories about the perpetrators family, the victim’s family and similar incidents. You would struggle to find any news on the significant Argentinian fires (that currently outsize that of Australia’s last year).

During natural disasters, an entire city or region may be affected, and people often bond together within communities, this was very evident during the Christchurch Earthquake. In contrast, where man-made events occur within a single organisation, there may be a sense of isolation from the community as people may feel some guilt by association – like a cyber attack or fire for example. It often feels like the world “keeps going” while theirs has stopped. There is a feeling of them and us, the people directly affected and the bystanders.

Passive vs Active Trauma

Passive Trauma is an actual injury, assault, loss of a job, crisis, medical procedure etc. Passive trauma is more in line with physical or emotional neglect. Someone not responding to your trauma, not providing support or just not registering your trauma.

Immediately after 9/11, many organisations experienced the fall out of passive and active trauma for its staff. There are case studies of businesses having a well-conceived Business Continuity plan with documented recovery procedures that still failed due to not addressing the human impact (in this catastrophic event, exceptions could be made).

Soon after the attack, companies had managed to evacuate all staff and invoke a business continuity plan. Part of that plan was to relocate staff to new offices, usually out of state.

In the coming weeks when staff relocated an unexpected culture was being reported nationally. Although the staff at the alternate office were part of the same company and sympathetic, there soon developed a “them and us” status. The staff who had been directly impacted by being in New York City that day struggled to mix and work with the staff who had watched it all on TV. The new office environments didn’t work.

Let’s be honest, could you work with someone who had gone through such trauma Monday to Friday, for the foreseeable future? It would take an emotional toll on anyone and be a constant elephant in the room scenario.

With regards to your staff, situational awareness is critical for a crisis team leader, but the human impact is often overlooked in that awareness. We must identify some ways to help you build employee engagement during a crisis.

Building Employee Engagement during a Crisis

There are 3 key steps to building employee engagement during a crisis. This involves:

  • Recognising when employees have specific needs in a crisis:
    • Are my colleagues safe?
    • What work will I be doing?
    • Will I still get paid?
    • How will this impact my family?
    • What support will you offer me?
  • Utilising Employee Assistance Programs:
    • Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are typically provided by external professional organisations. They are contracted to provide confidential support and advice to employees for a range of mental health and well-being issues. Unfortunately, most employees are not familiar with EAP programs or how they operate.  In addition, many employees distrust that any contact will remain confidential. Access to EAP programs should be available for any mental health and well-being issue, not just trauma situations.
  • Debriefing:
    • A debriefing is a one-time, semi-structured conversation with an individual who has just experienced a stressful or traumatic event. Consideration should be given on:
      • When do you debrief?
      • Who should receive a debrief?
      • Who should conduct a debrief?


Key Success Factors for Engaging Employees

Successfully engaging employees during a crisis requires Crisis Managers to provide the right mix of:

  • Information
  • Communication
  • Intervention
  • Follow-up

Don’t forget the human factor in your plans. Your staff are your most important assets to facilitating a successful recovery from whatever unexpected event has come your way. Staff will more than likely react differently to different types of crisis events. Make sure you are prepared and ready for that.

Writing a strategy into a plan and not confirming its validity through desktop or live scenarios, is not a strategy at all. Validate the plan, validate the strategy and validate your staff.

The Resilience Digest