Editor’s Note: Tim Hobart, certified employee assistance professional and CEO at H&H Health Associates in St Louis, Missouri, draws on his own experience to highlight the importance of EAPs amid a critical incident in the workplace.
If I’ve learned one thing about the bottom-line impact in the aftermath of critical incident responses (CIR), it’s that the lack of timely, effective, and compassionate responses from leadership and C-level executives can be disastrous. This seems all the more tragic when capable guidance to an effective response is available from the professionals in a workplace based EAP.
Certainly, critical incidents call for a plan that highlights the urgency to protect the organization’s reputation, employees, brand and earnings. But the plan needs more — it must always include an assessment of the critical incident’s emotional and mental effect on employees and an action plan to reassure them that they are valued. Indeed, leadership’s response to the critical incident is an ideal context and opportunity to express a clear, empathetic message of trust and gratitude to the people who make the company successful.
It’s discouraging to construct a well-planned and impactful critical incident response for an organization and then have it completely undermined by the lack of support or worse, no response at all from leadership.
A lot of employees have lived through a workplace trauma like a robbery, shooting, an unexpected death, or an upsetting event within their workplace at some point. And, as we know, workplace traumas don’t discriminate. From large corporate settings to small businesses, all have had to deal with significant disruption in their workplaces at some point, especially as they have navigated the challenges of the pandemic. In every case, there is a clarion call to leadership to act. Usually, this involves giving employees reassurance and expressing concern and support for them as they move forward.
I’ve witnessed numerous executives who have helped employees navigate through trauma — and many who have not. The leaders who get high marks from their employees have a few things in common:
- They know that really bad things happen. Terrible things occur all the time and no one has total immunity. They know it’s not business as usual and they accept that reality.
- They show and speak to employees with an abundant amount of genuine empathy, compassion and concern. This wins the day every time.
- They know the things they can’t change, and instead target the things where they can make impact and communicate ongoing status and plans with clarity and vulnerability in the face of the situation.
- They are quick to support and be with their employees throughout the ordeal and its aftermath.
“For many employees, knowing and believing that their companies are committed to their well-being means hearing it and seeing it from the highest levels of the organization,” said Brian Solis, global innovation evangelist at Salesforce. “Empathy at its most basic form involves good listening skills, but also the ability to feel something as another.”
Why do many leaders and executives miss the opportunity for concern during and after an incident? Part of it is the nature of the role. The downside of being a leader, especially as the population of the organization increases, is that size matters. According to Elizabeth Segal, a professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, “People’s capacity for empathy is affected by how much authority they have and by the size of the organization.” This is a generalization, but volume and power can block empathy.
When somebody is in a leadership position, if they are picking up and processing everyone’s feelings and experiences — those who work for them or who are represented by them — they could be immobilized. At some point, leaders get to a position where they realize, “I can’t attend to every need, I have to look more globally.” Many leaders are, therefore, simply focused on other essential matters.
So, there’s a conversation that needs to occur with employee assistance professionals about something leadership may not even be aware of — the impact of critical incidents on workplace behavioral health and the company bottom line.
Employee assistance professionals can educate leadership and key stakeholders on the importance of top leaders addressing employees after a critical incident. Employee assistance professionals have demonstrated their expertise in this space. Employee assistance professionals will reiterate the importance of leadership demonstrating an abundant amount of empathy, compassion and concern for employees.
This is also a great time for leaders to offer employee assistance trainings to all managers on critical incident response and for using the EAP as a management tool. With these actions, the EAP provides critical, long-term value.
Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
If there’s a single argument for empathy, and a solid reason to use empathy when responding to a critical incident, that’s it.
About the Author
Tim Hobart, MBA, CEAP, is the CEO at H&H Health Associates in St Louis, Missouri.