Posted: 27 Feb. 2020 5 min. read

Organisational responses in times of crisis

An interview with the CEO of Beyond Blue

Employees of organisations large and small have been impacted both directly and indirectly by the recent Australian bushfires and Corona Virus outbreak. These crises can take a serious toll on the mental wellbeing of employees. Given the amount of time employees spend in workplaces, organisations and leaders are in a unique position to provide support to employees managing the impact of these crises in the workplace. Therefore, it is important that organisations are equipped with the appropriate strategies and tools to support their employees – in particular fostering and maintaining an open, transparent and inclusive culture where individuals are supported by psychological safety, allowing them to express their concerns with colleagues and leaders.  

Individuals impacted by far reaching crises can represent a wide range of diversity – and in particular, as seen with the Corona Virus – the impacts can be seen across countries and regions. We have seen through mainstream media how this can stir up Xenophobic attitudes which may permeate into organisations, so providing a safe and inclusive culture is essential to ensuring employee wellbeing. 

In line with this, we spoke with Georgie Harman, CEO at Beyond Blue, to gain some key insights on how organisations/leaders can best support employees who have been impacted by crises.  Georgie is known for her decisive and personable leadership style and her track record of delivering complex reforms. Appointed CEO of Beyond Blue in May 2014, Georgie has diversified the organisation’s activities and led significant growth in service innovation, suicide prevention and digital offerings in response to community need.

1. With the recent Australian bushfires and Corona Virus outbreak, many organisations and their employees are on high alert, and have been for some time. What impact can prolonged stressful/critical situations have on employees?

It is normal for people to feel distressed about these events, and workplaces should be aware that the intensity and timing of those reactions will differ from person to person.

Common reactions include feeling overwhelmed, numb or detached

  • They may be unable to focus or plan ahead
  • They may have trouble sleeping 
  • Or constantly question “what if” they had done things differently at the time of the disaster

These feelings usually subside after one month. If an employee is struggling after one month has passed, they should consider seeing a GP or mental health professional.

However if at any time they feel:

  • that their reactions are not normal
  • are thinking of self-harm or taking their own life
  • have lost hope or interest in the future
  • can’t carry out day-to-day tasks because they avoid things that remind them of what happened
  • are easily startled and take a long time to calm down
  • feel overwhelming fear for not obvious reason
  • experience symptoms of panic attacks – increased heart rate, breathlessness, dizziness
  • or excessive guilt about things that were or weren’t said and done

Then they should seek support. Don’t wait for one month to pass. 

Many organisations offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). Some organisations have even increased the threshold of free consultations and extended EAPs to family members of employees during the bushfire crisis. 

In these situations, people often want to do something tangible to help, and it’s the little things that employers do that can make a big difference. You might want to look at your volunteering policy, or think about workplace giving recipients, and let staff know that you can support them to give back in this way.

Employees can be supported in other ways too (e.g. Beyond Blue’s Bushfires and Mental Health web page). 

2. Is it a mistake to assume that just because a crisis is happening far away that it won’t impact employees? 

People don’t necessarily have to live in harm’s way for their mental health to be affected. The recent bushfires are a good example of the widespread effects of a disaster. The important thing is to acknowledge that a major crisis, even one that occurs overseas, can be a source of distress for your people. For example, you never know what they may have been through in the past, that events like this bring back.

3. How can organisations consider wellbeing of employees at differing levels with relation to their proximity to the crisis?

You don’t have to be exposed directly to a disaster to experience distress. As we have seen, people hundreds of kilometres away from the bushfires have felt the emotional impacts. Given the amount of time employees spend in workplaces, organisations are in a strong position to identify how their staff are feeling and to provide support. It is important that organisations have conversations with their employees and open the door for them to talk about their feelings. The conversation needs to convey how people may be affected, regardless of their level of exposure to a disaster. People will feel you have made their wellbeing a priority, and this can encourage someone who is hesitant to talk about their feelings to open up and seek support.

4. Increasingly, organisations are giving staff flexibility to work from home in regional or rural areas – which means for some employees – they were directly in harm’s way. What guidance can you provide for organisations who have team members directly impacted by bushfires?

A situation like the bushfires poses health and safety risks for people who work remotely. But flexible working arrangements may be useful during the recovery phase when people may have to rebuild their homes, are dealing with insurance claims or need make arrangements for children who may have lost their school. Consider offering flexible hours, extended time off, and pay attention to an individual’s workloads and connection to your workplace during this time. 

Employers should be aware of the potential long-term impacts this summer’s bushfires may have on employees who work from home, particularly those in rural and regional areas.  Working from home, even when there’s not a risk to safety, presents its own challenges to mental health so make sure to ask employees who work from home how they are feeling; keep the communication channels open.

5. We have seen some amazing support in the corporate and broader Australian community in terms of fundraising and other charitable support – does this help employee mental wellbeing? Do organisations need to be mindful of Donor Fatigue?

I am always touched by people’s generosity and willingness to help others, especially those who are facing tough times. At Beyond Blue we see a lot of people who we’ve helped in the past come back to us because they want to help others – as community speakers, volunteers, donors. 

During the summer bushfire crisis, many workplaces supported employees to volunteer in affected communities without having to draw on their annual leave.  This is a great way for organisations to support recovery efforts outside of making financial donations. Allowing staff to help in these tangible ways often has a two-way effect: for affected communities and at an individual level. And we know, is very good for our emotional wellbeing.

6. Are there any particular signs that managers or leaders should be on the lookout for that may be a tell that someone may be in need of help?

Of course, workplace leaders and managers aren’t expected to be mental health experts. However, they hold positions of influence and as such, they’re in a strong position to set the tone and support others. 

I know of workplaces where leaders have made mental health and wellbeing a regular topic of conversation with staff so when they notice an employee is not quite themselves, they know that asking the person if they’re okay will not be met with surprise. (For common signs of depression and anxiety please refer to https://www.beyondblue.org.au/.

7. If organisations need resources or frameworks to guide their response in times of crises – are there any you can recommend?

Many workplaces in Australia already have mental health strategies in place and will be in a good position to support staff affected by a crisis such as bushfires. For businesses that are yet to make workplace mental health a priority, it’s never too late start. I strongly recommend they download Beyond Blue’s how-to guide to Developing a Workplace Mental Health Strategy at the Heads Up web site.

For further information on this article, please contact Adrian Letilovic (aletilovic@deloitte.com.au) or Jessie Gordon (jegordon@deloitte.com.au).  

More about the authors

Adrian Letilovic

Adrian Letilovic

Manager, Consulting

Adrian is a Manager at Deloitte Digital in Australia. He is passionate about strategic communication, employee engagement and the role D&I plays in this space. Outside of work he is an avid writer and pop-culture connoisseur. You can usually catch him watching reruns of the Simpsons or Gossip Girl.

Jessie Gordon

Jessie Gordon

Analyst Human Capital

Jessie Gordon is an Analyst in the Human Capital Consulting practice, with an interest in leadership and capability, diversity and inclusion, and culture change. Jessie comes from a background in psychology, mental health and wellbeing.