Don’t Overlook Mental Health in Emergency Preparedness

Is mental health part of your emergency action plan?

Is mental health part of your emergency action plan? Learn how addressing psychological safety creates a more prepared & resilient workforce.

Author: Linda Arias

June 25, 2024

When it comes to workplace emergencies, the last thing you will hear anyone say is, “I felt over-prepared for it.” While we don’t get to choose when emergencies will happen, we can choose to prepare a workforce with tools that help them navigate workplace emergencies. However, many emergency action plans have a significant gap in properly addressing mental health for responders.

This blog aims to highlight the importance of mental health in emergency preparedness, demonstrating how taking steps to pre-plan can lead to better response and recovery outcomes. By addressing the psychological safety needs of the workforce, organizations can foster a more resilient and prepared environment for all employees.

Mental Health is Crucial to Effective Emergency Response Planning

Workplace emergencies can happen at any time or place. Those who have experienced an emergency often recount how they were surprised by how an industrial emergency can affect their lives, as well as the lives of their colleagues, family, and community. This experience makes them realize the importance of psychological support in emergency preparedness. It becomes clear to them that mental preparedness before, during, and after a crisis is crucial. 

Considering that the U.S. Surgeon General has recognized workplace well-being as a critical priority, mental health support should be part of any emergency plan offered to employees.

Understanding the Need

Without question, the technical part of emergency preparedness is crucial for employee safety. Sadly, many well-thought-out plans fail to address employee mental well-being properly.

This oversight can have significant impacts on employee mental health, making the plans incomplete without a mental health component. The prevalence of mental disorders such as depression and anxiety can double during times of crisis. If not addressed effectively, this can affect a worker’s ability to function and recover effectively and could even be prolonged after the initial crisis has passed.  

Emergencies can have a large impact on mental health

EH&S managers create emergency plans that seem “picture perfect” in terms of preparation and execution but do not adequately address the mental well-being of employees. The truth is that an emergency is unpredictable and can have a significant emotional impact on those involved, regardless of the plan. Recovery from such events often involves substantial emotional work, highlighting the need for comprehensive mental health support before, during, and after an incident. The emotional toll of an emergency can trigger feelings like guilt, shame, sorrow, and loss.

Understanding the need is important, as the impact of emergencies on mental health is as varied and unique as the people who experience them. While each organization needs to explore what works for them, here are key considerations to address before and after an emergency to help ensure employee well-being.

Pre-emergency Preparation

#1: Partner with HR to Pre-Identify Resources  
Collaborate with HR to identify and develop resources such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). If you don’t have this benefit for employees, consider state or community resources, mental health benefits, and leave specialists. Having these resources readily available ensures employees have access to support when needed.

#2: Leverage External Resources  
Utilize state or community resources and national helplines, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988 talk or text line), to provide additional support options for employees in crisis. External resources can offer specialized assistance that may not be available internally, ensuring a comprehensive support system for employees.

#3: Training and Preparedness 
Conduct mental health and wellness education to reduce stigma and encourage employees to seek help when needed. Training can also include how to recognize signs of distress in colleagues. By fostering a culture of openness and support, organizations can better prepare their workforce for the emotional challenges of an emergency.  

Listen to your employees

Post-Emergency Actions

One of the most important actions an organization can take post-emergency is to support their employees in addressing a worker’s emotional reactions to a crisis. Here are 5 common reactions and suggestions for addressing them.

#1: Anguish and Uncertainty
Providing clear communication about the root causes of the emergency can help employees process the event and focus on actionable steps for the future. Transparent communication can help ease feelings of uncertainty and help employees regain a sense of control.

#2: Guilt and Self-Blame
It is important to reassure employees that their contributions were, are, and remain valuable despite the incident, regardless of the root causes. Many people may experience “survivor’s guilt.” Others may spread rumors or misinformation about the situation, so be prepared to hear difficult feedback about workplace culture.

#3: Need for Reflection
Creating a neutral physical space for reflection can help employees process their emotions in a supportive environment. Accept that some employees may not function as they did before the incident, but still emphasize their value. Avoid re-traumatizing employees by never compelling them to share their stories before they are ready.

#4: Work Performance Issues
Be prepared for potential absenteeism, focus issues, and the need for frequent breaks. Show patience and readiness to listen. Understanding and accommodating these challenges can help employees gradually return to their normal work routines without added stress.  

#5: Struggling to Readjust or “Reconstruct”
Provide EAP information to employees and have professional counselors and discussion groups available to help them process their experience. It is also helpful to hold voluntary sessions for storytelling and post-incident learning. Organizations should also use safety meetings, small groups, educational videos, and guest speakers to aid recovery. Allow time for an employee to readjust by recognizing that recovery can be a multi-year process.

Pro Tips

  • Listen to employees: Consider creating a plan with your employees. This is especially true for those who have lived through emergencies and have developed into or are emerging as safety advocates. This can help offer differing viewpoints from responders who experience a range of emotions.

  • Promote Respect and Dignity: Don’t let blame culture – whether corporately or personally – rob you of a chance to address issues to create a stronger safety culture. When employees are respected and treated with dignity they can help create a better functioning emergency response organization.

Preparation Includes Mental Health

Remember, comprehensive preparedness goes beyond the immediate response. By addressing mental well-being, you signal to employees that you are taking care of more than just the immediate. It’s the preparation that has lasting rewards for the entire workforce.