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How to support your employees during a crisis

Russia invaded Ukraine, and Ukrainian lives changed forever. Work had to stop, soldiers and civilians mobilized, people evacuated, and grandmas learned how to make Molotov cocktails with instructions from Google.

Suzanne Lucas
Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne, the Evil HR Lady, shares expertise, guidance, and insights based on 10+ years of experience in corporate human resources....

support your employees during crisis

If you’re living safely in the United States or anywhere outside Ukraine, it shouldn’t affect your work. Your employees should get their acts together and get their work done. No bombs are falling on their houses. Right?

This kind of attitude is familiar – “If it doesn’t affect me, it shouldn’t affect you”. After all, you aren’t personally involved in the crisis. Whether it’s a war in Ukraine, a terrorist attack in West Africa, or even a terrible car accident on the freeway, people often assume that it’s no big deal unless you yourself were there.

They are wrong. And as managers and HR people, we need to be aware of the world and local events and understand that even people without obvious connections may be shattered by what goes on elsewhere. You need to support your employees during crisis. Here’s why, and what you need to do.

Everywhere is more global than you realize

I went to high school in St. George, Utah, with Michelle Truax. She was the high school orchestra concertmistress, and I was a very bad cellist. If you know anything about St. George in the 1980s and 1990s, you’d know it was not a very diverse place.

And yet, today, Michelle is the mother of seven children, three of which she and her husband adopted as teenagers from Ukraine. Her children remember their Ukrainian families and keep in touch, and so, why you might see Michelle as a woman from Southern Utah, she’s also a mother of Ukrainian children, and you can bet that this war affects her life.

Also, 13.7% of people living in the United States immigrated from another country. They, most likely, still have friends and families in their countries of origin. Their American-born children are likely still deeply connected as well. And Ukraine isn’t the only country in crisis. Just because you haven’t heard about a particular tragedy doesn’t mean it doesn’t profoundly hurt your employee.

And it’s not just the United States that has a diverse population. Here are the top 10 countries based on foreign-born residents:

  1. United States — 50.6 million
  2. Germany — 15.8 million
  3. Saudi Arabia — 13.5 million
  4. Russia — 11.6 million
  5. United Kingdom — 9.4 million
  6. United Arab Emirates — 8.7 million
  7. France — 8.5 million
  8. Canada — 8.0 million
  9. Australia — 7.7 million
  10. Spain — 6.8 million

So how do you react to this information? When tragedy strikes, assume someone in your organization is closely connected to that country. If they are stressed or concerned, listen. Do what you can to support your employees.

1. Do something

If you have employees in Poland, they may well be housing Ukrainian refugees. But your employees in Boston are far less likely to be taking strangers into their homes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do something to help.

You can organize a fundraiser or join a reputable organization to raise funds. This can support your employees during a crisis and helps your employees feel like you care. Doing something, no matter how small, makes people feel like they can make something a little bit better.

You may even have employees in Ukraine or Russia who are affected firsthand by the war. Many companies in this situation are reinvesting their resources and are actively working to move these employees to safety.

With a big crisis like the Ukrainian invasion, there are obvious ways to help. With smaller or local problems, it might not be so obvious, but there is always something your company can do.

2. Compassion is better than sympathy

You can be sympathetic, and it can still come across as cold, even though you don’t mean to. Harvard Medical School Psychologist Susan David breaks down the differences in how you react to someone else’s problems and pain. Here are her three examples:

  • Sympathy: I’m so sorry you’re in pain. (Distant)
  • Empathy: I can imagine what this pain feels like. (Shared)
  • Compassion: You are suffering, and I will do what I can to help. (Connected and Action-oriented)

Compassion is the best way forward when an employee struggles, whether from a personal problem or a global tragedy. What you can do will vary from person to person and from job to job, but doing what you can and asking your employees what they need is genuine compassion.

Don’t assume based on what you think you would need – ask. And keep in mind that sometimes, your well-meaning suggestions may sound tone-deaf. For example, if an employee comes to you and says the war in Ukraine is very stressful because her relatives live there, and you respond, “Remember, self-care is important. Why don’t you take a day off to relax?”

You may be trying to be nice, but your employee may respond; “How on earth can I relax when they are hiding in the basement of their apartment building?”

Focusing on compassion is never a wrong way to support your employees during a crisis.

3. Remember your Employee Assistance Program

You probably have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that comes with your insurance – and if not, look into getting one. The EAP can be like magic in times of crisis. They have access to resources you wouldn’t think of, and your employees might not know what they need. Remind your employees that they can call, and you won’t even know they did. (Your EAP should report only that someone used their services and not identify the person.)

It’s not the first thing that comes to people’s minds in times of crisis, so remind people that it’s there. Post the details in the break rooms or distribute them via online channels such as Slack. Let people know that you want them to call if they need help – and emphasize the privacy to support those employees who may be otherwise hesitant during a crisis.

4. Be as flexible as possible

When an employee suddenly finds their cousins will be arriving from a war-torn area or following a natural disaster, your employee will need time and money to prepare for their family members. If you can offer extra time off, allow your other employees to donate their days, or put out a call for beds and dressers, it can be a tremendous help.

If someone needs to travel without much notice, even if it’s your busy season, remember to be compassionate – this is something you can do.

If someone needs time off because of stress or anxiety, it’s possible that FMLA or ADA can cover that. Send them to their doctor. And if not? Be proactive and give it anyway. Remember, it will take you far longer to replace an employee that quits because you couldn’t be flexible in times of trial than it would to give them the time off and show that you’re thinking about them.

The war in Ukraine won’t be the last tragedy that befalls us, so even if this doesn’t affect your employees directly, the next thing might. Prepare now for the next problem.

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