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How to support your team in a crisis

Edition: 3

These are turbulent times. With terms like ‘panic’, ‘pandemic’, and ‘disaster’ being used regularly in the media, it’s understandable if you’re feeling a little unsettled by the current coronavirus situation. But it doesn’t necessarily take a global event to raise feelings of uncertainty, stress and anxiety.

Whether it’s stories in the news, issues at work, or even changing circumstances in our personal lives, there is always something happening with the potential to throw us off course and threaten our productivity and wellbeing.

So how do we “keep calm and carry on”? And as HR professionals, how do we help others to do the same?

The first thing to consider, according to registered psychologist Mark Belanti, is self-care.

“I think about this as me putting on my oxygen mask first, before I try to help other people,” explained Mark. “As HR professionals this is one of the most important things that we need to understand. If we don’t have a clear head, if we’re not being the best version of ourselves through this, we’re not going to be as effective in helping others or challenging situations.”

Good self-care means doing things like:

  • being aware of your own needs and feelings, so you can address issues early
  • taking time to unwind or do activities you enjoy, so you can think more clearly
  • following familiar routines, to provide a sense of normalcy and reliability
  • keeping healthy with proper diet, exercise and sleep to improve mood and cognitive abilities.  

Ultimately you know yourself best, so looking to strategies you’ve used effectively in the past to manage feelings of stress and anxiety is also a great idea.

Once you’ve addressed your own needs, you are then better equipped to help others. But sometimes it can be difficult to identify who needs your help, and when.

One of the most telling signs is a change in behaviour.

“We need to be sensitive and notice changes in people’s normal behaviour, and often it’s the line managers with the local knowledge who will see what those warning signs are,” said Mark.

Things like a team member suddenly becoming very quiet when they’re usually quite loud or talkative, arriving late when they are normally punctual, or even a general decline in work performance can indicate signs of distress.

Once you’ve identified the clouds on the horizon, the next step is to help steer the person in a more positive direction.

Mark suggested using a three-step framework.

  1. Engage in positive discussion. Start the conversation and allow people to express their emotions without judgement or interruption. Actively listen and let them know that these feelings are normal.
  2. Acknowledge their views. Use this chance to connect with empathy. Reflect what you’ve heard to show you understand (even if you disagree), and avoid invalidation; for example, try not to use phrases like “don’t worry about it” or “it’ll be okay”.
  3. Facilitate positive behaviours. While being careful not to take on problems and make them your own, you can help staff identify their needs and options to address them. For example, finding clear, accurate information to enhance feelings of certainty, leaning on support networks, and limiting exposure to things that may cause further distress such as sensationalist media reports. 

And while these are a good start, Mark emphasised that efforts shouldn’t stop there.

“Keep checking in. These conversations aren’t going to resolve in one conversation, it’s going to be a series of discussions. So keep checking in with the person who you’re supporting.” 

Looking to the weeks and months ahead, Mark also encourages teams to set up long-term procedures to deal with the ongoing challenges of remote working.

Things like having regular, brief one-on-one catch-ups over the phone, as well as team video conferences, will allow you to really hear and see how staff are coping. Fun activities like video conferencing for a Friday afternoon social gathering and sharing work-appropriate memes will also help boost morale and minimise feelings of isolation.

Because although we may be physically distant, we must remember that it is more important than ever to remain socially connected and supportive of each other.

If you’d like more information and practical tips to help you manage challenging situations and promote mental wellbeing, watch the APS HR Professional Network COVID-19 webinar


Last reviewed: 
3 November 2020