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When Tragedy Strikes: Eleven Tips for Your Workplace Response

Tragedies Affect the Workplace

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For Americans and many around the world, the Kennedy assassinations, the Challenger and Columbia shuttle explosions, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the bombing of the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and the devastation from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast head the list of America’s incomprehensible tragedies.

Personal Tragedies Affect Workplaces

In our workplaces, more personal tragedies also occur regularly. Coworkers and their family members die. Customers file for bankruptcy and leave hundreds unemployed. Manufacturing plants burn down. Friends are diagnosed with terminal illnesses. An incident of workplace violence leaves coworkers dead.

While not as riveting and all-encompassing as major, national tragedies, the more personal, closer-to-home tragedies and the national, bigger-than-life tragedies have much in common for people in workplaces.

National Tragedies Affect Workplaces

To start, we frequently find out about national tragedies while we are at work. We gather with coworkers watching national news unfold on televisions and computer screens. We gather in groups and talk about the event.

We share information and talk incessantly. We reach out to understand how the tragedy is affecting our associates. We look out for each other. As an example, many of us watched the planes crash into the World Trade Center while at work.

With the more personal tragedies, our actions and wishes are likely less public, but there is that same sense of wanting to do something to help and not knowing what to do.

In most instances, for positive mental health, we reach out to each other for friendship and support. Sometimes, it's the more personal tragedies about which we feel the most inadequate. After all, they are occurring right here - and we should be able to help.

A national tragedy or a personal tragedy has a huge impact at work. And, organizations can help people successfully weather the tragedy. They can ease the passage people experience during tragedy. They can help people deal with the helplessness and grief they experience during tragedy. They can provide a support system to help prop people up during grief.

These ideas will help you help your employees as they experience either a national tragedy or the regular, life-changing tragedies that occur within your own workplace.

Recommended Actions During Tragedy and Heartbreak

Make Sure People Are Safe

If the incident is happening in your workplace, make certain people are safe before you do anything else. Implement your disaster plan, ring the fire alarm, do whatever your company emergency evacuation plan prescribes for safety. The plan should designate a meeting location, where attendance can be taken, so you know the members of your work force are safe.

Cut People Some Slack

People cannot return to productive work immediately upon hearing about a tragedy. If you expect them to continue working, people will make errors and mistakes because they are distracted by the events or information. Don't pretend. Just tell people that it is all right to focus their energy on the happening. If you do this, most individuals will return to productive work more quickly when their need for information and interests are satisfied.

Assess the Personal Involvement of Employees

If the tragedy impacts an individual personally, offer release time, support, a ride, help obtaining information, and anything else the individual appears to need. For major and direct impacts on your workplace, you may need to decide whether to continue paying employees, even though they are not working, for a period of time. You may offer shelter, relocation, or other forms of compensation during tragedy, too.

Give People Information

If you can do so without totally disrupting work, provide televisions and computer screens so workers are informed about events as they unfold – even if only in break rooms. In more personal tragedies, give all employees as much information as possible, as soon as the information is available. (I do not mean providing employee confidential information, but other information is essential.)

Information helps people process the events. Turn on radios, broadcast breaking news over your speaker system and recognize that people will call friends and acquaintances to share information and compare notes. The closer you are to the tragedy, the more people will want to know.

Interested in seven more tips for employers about addressing workplace tragedy?

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