How can employers support staff in a time of tragedy?

The workplace should serve as a ‘safe space’ for all workers reeling from devastation

How can employers support staff in a time of tragedy?

In the wake of the terrorist shootings that targeted the Muslim community of Christchurch – as New Zealand lives through ‘one of its darkest days’ – people find their strongest refuge is in each other.

Tragedy, no matter the scale, creates a ripple effect in the community. In a time of crisis, organisations have a responsibility to create a ‘safe space’ at work as people try to make sense of their ordeal.

‘All staff need to be supported’

The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 requires employers to provide a safe workplace for all people working for them or on their premises. A safe workplace ensures both the physical and psychological wellbeing of staff.

Amid the pressures of work, employees remain vulnerable to the shock and grief experienced by their community. Even as many of us soldier on, others may be quietly sending a distress signal. When this cry for help is ignored, such grief can begin to affect their outlook, mood, behaviour, and quality of life and work.

“All staff need to be supported, whether they are directly affected, i.e. wounded, or have family or friends who were killed or harmed; or indirectly suffering distress as a result of the terrible events in Christchurch,” said Steph Dyhrberg, a partner at Dyhrberg Drayton Employment Law.

Dyhrberg, who serves as chairperson of Employment Law Wellington 2019, believes Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and additional time off should be easily available to anyone, especially those directly affected by tragedy.

Employers, she said, should designate a special coordinator, either from HR or Legal, who will help survivors and their families avail of government assistance; apply for grants from fundraising campaigns; or secure referrals to lawyers who can help with legal battles arising from the event.

Shaun Brookes, a senior associate at Buddle Findlay, reminds employers that they have a duty under the Employment Relations Act 2000 to be communicative and responsive.

“Employers should recognise that their workers will react differently to these types of events. Engaging with workers to understand how they are coping and whether they require extra support will be important,” Brookes said.

“Even if the employer does not pay for counselling for its workers, it could help identify the appropriate services and give the employee the time to engage with those services.”

“Allowing employees to use sick leave may also be appropriate in some instances,” he added.

Brookes also recommends helping employees access free helplines and services available for victims of crime, as well as mental health services that employers can direct workers to.

Zero tolerance for bigotry

Apart from providing support services, managers should also be prepared to answer difficult questions from staff. “Be open to caring but difficult conversations,” Dyhrberg said, encouraging leaders to foster a culture of kindness and tolerance even when “nerves will be raw”.

But while managers promote open and honest conversations, they should lay down the rules for everyone. “Have no tolerance for racism,” she said.

In the context of the mosque shootings, “Ask Muslim employees how they would like people to talk with them or what support they would appreciate,” Dyhrberg said. “Don’t make assumptions.”

Some workers might not need any additional support or changes. Others, however, will be more affected by a tragedy, Brookes advised.

“For those employees more affected,” he said, “employers should be flexible and engage with them to identify ways that they can provide support.”

Organisations can also set up a charity, volunteer or solidarity program for employees who want to help the victims, families and Muslim community. “If people want to attend vigils at mosques to show their support, be encouraging of that,” Dyhrberg said.

Knowledge of employment law is vital to effective leadership. Employment Law Wellington 2019 is designed for HR and business leaders who want to gain a deeper understanding of legal issues.

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