Watching the Townsville floods has been personal for us this week.
One of our team, Zoe, has her Mum and Dad are sitting in their home awaiting evacuation orders.
A week ago, it was a theoretical problem – watching weather reports, and wondering how far it would go – and today, it’s a serious issue of personal safety for them and of a massive community catastrophe.
Like all of us who sit in and lead HR, Zoe has also found herself in the frontline of deciding what a company’s response will be to a natural disaster.
We asked Zoe to reflect on how to do this work, in a deeply practical way that supports and helps the community in their hour of need.
Here’s Zoe’s thoughts:
Best laid plans aside
There are tons of articles on how to protect your business from natural disasters – from business continuity plans to OH&S plans to Scenario training for the critical incident team.
That’s all fine, except that the Critical Incident Team is rarely right on the frontline as a disaster hits. Instead, the closest people leader is. They have the both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity to make a difference!
Immediate Safety Trumps Everything
If a natural disaster occurs, the health and safety of your team, yourself and your customers should be the priority above anything else. This care for people has to be as close to the action as possible, and comes way before the interests of the business or the organsiation.
This is your ‘north star’ – Do whatever it takes to keep people safe. Offer them as much security as you can and meet their basic human needs – food, shelter, warmth, dry land, clothing, bedding and place to stay. If your workplace is safer than their homes, consider whether it can become a refuge. If not, find where the refuge is going to be, and get your support to that location.
Communication and support is vital. Be in regular contact with every person on the team during and post an event to check-in on their wellbeing and provide any support. By getting regular updates, you’re best positioned to appreciate their immediate circumstances and be most relevant to them.
Be Open and Flexible
It’s important to appreciate that your employees are under unprecedented stress when a natural disaster hits. There may well be a host of policies in place. Keep the ones that keep people safe (e.g. gumboots and gloves as they clean up after a flood), but lose the time clock around hours this week, when its clear that the very act of getting to work is impossible. Demonstrate you genuinely care. Hear where they are and what’s going on for them. Ask how you can be most relevant. You may well need to change the way your business operates until life goes back to normal. Each employee will be affected differently and will require different support. Be responsive to individual needs.
Employee Assistance Program
Natural disasters affect us all in different ways and can lead to people feeling an immediate sense of loss or fear and eventually even to PTSD some months after the event.To support their personal healing, you might provide a safe space to talk about the impact on them and their family. You may encourage your team to utilise your employee assistance program for counselling or to facilitate a team debrief when the whole community or team is impacted or united in their understanding.
Beyond Your Team
Consider your business – your people and their skills – the services you offer – and how you can leverage these things to have a positive impact on the broader community. There are some amazing examples of organisations and their people going well beyond their ‘social conscience’. For example, just before and during the Townsville floods, a local business provided free tarps and sandbags to those in need.
Hospitals and medical clinics are always hit-hard during any natural disaster. While government agencies often coordinate extra supplies and resources, hospitals run low on blood. A great way to help those in need, and also ensure the rest of the team feels less powerless, is to encourage your employees to become part of a blood donation drive. You could invite the Australian Red Cross to come to you or allow people time off to visit a local clinic without clock watching. The best part is you can donate blood anywhere in the country!
Round up the troops! Community Volunteering is vital to recovery after a natural disaster. Volunteering can help your team reduce stress and provide a sense of purpose and involvement as they help those around them. Volunteering allows you and your team to connect with your community and by helping out with the smallest tasks, it can truly make a difference. It can be as simple as becoming a drop-off point for food, clothing and other supplies or offering employees paid volunteering leave. No need to overthink it – just get it going.
Are you the People Leader on the frontline? Have you been faced with the task of supporting a team member through crisis? We would love to hear your story.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you help. Every contribution, large or small, is a step closer to regaining normality for your team, customers and the community you all serve.