CASTING THE LIFELINE: THE ROLE OF HUMAN RESOURCES IN HELPING EMPLOYEES IN CRISIS

 

Joyce St. George
From: Employment Relations Today, Vol. 25, No. 2; John Wiley and Sons, Summer 1998.

INTRODUCTIONCasting the Lifeline

It had all the earmarks of a performance issue. A manager reported to you that one of her workers is continually missing deadlines, handing in sloppy reports and snapping at his team members. A simple case of coaching or discipline? On the surface, of course. However, the manager then advises you that the worker’s wife passed away seven months ago and suggests that his behavior could be tied to his loss.

Managing situations involving employees in crisis have become common occurrences for human resources practitioners. The stress and strains of today’s over-extended society have most of us living on the edge of the envelope. We work harder and with fewer resources, spend more time at work than at home and are expected to perform at our peak on a daily basis. Little time is allotted for emotional upsets because our calendars just cannot permit the luxury. But the affects of these life changing experiences can be devastating, and when employees do face such critical times, they often turn to Human Resources.

Human Resources professionals serve as the corporate lifeline that pulls employees from troubled waters. HR managers help employees face family sickness and death, domestic violence, substance abuse and other personal challenges. HR also picks up the pieces during professional crises such as downsizing, horrific incidents of workplace violence and natural disasters.

Helping employees through crises is one of the most rewarding experiences for professionals in HR. It is also one of the most challenging, requiring special skills in crisis intervention. While most HR managers have a foundation of counseling skills to call upon when crisis appears at their door, many are unprepared for the intensity and emotional upheaval associated with people in crisis. This article discusses the dynamics of crisis on individuals and offers intervention skills for Human Resources professionals to use to help employees experiencing crisis.

UNDERSTANDING CRISIS: AN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

The study of crisis and is relatively new in the field of mental health. Historically, individuals behaving in “maladaptive” ways were considered insane by the medical world. However, in 1942 psychiatrists at the Harvard Medical School studied the reaction of people under extraordinary stress and trauma from a horrific fire at the Coconut Grove nightclub. The fire claimed the lives of scores of people as it swept through the club during peak hours. Dr. Erich Lindemann and Dr. Gerald Caplan observed and treated its survivors and their families, as well as the families of the victims. Their studies revealed that certain grief reactions were commonly displayed by every individual involved in the incident.

Lindemann and Caplan established a theoretical frame of reference for the stages of turmoil people experience during the course of extreme stress and trauma. Various intervention methods to deal with people in severe emotional distress were also offered. Today, crisis intervention is a specialized area of study for psychologists, social workers, police, medical professionals and others whose jobs includes emergency care. During the 1960s, concern over family abuse, sexual assault, suicide and other social problems spurred community groups to establish their own specialized crisis services. As a result, today there are hundreds of hot-lines, crisis intervention centers and support groups currently operating throughout the country to support government agencies and target individuals experiencing specific types of crises.

Tylenol’s infamous product tampering incident and the fatal Union Carbide chemical spill in India propelled corporations to address large scale crisis during the 1980s. Since that time, most major companies established crisis protocols and teams to respond to product tampering, espionage, natural disasters, bomb threats and the like. And recently, increased of incidents of terrorism and violence in the workplace prompted companies to address crisis and its effects on employees.

DEFINING CRISIS

Crisis is a turning point caused by an insurmountable threat or obstacle to life goals that cannot be met by customary methods of problem solving. It is a temporary state of upheaval that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. Triggered by a specific stressful event, a crisis can evoke intense feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and loss of control.

Crisis is unique to each of us and can be the result of a predictable life change (such as child birth) or from a sudden arbitrary and unexpected event (such as the sudden death of a loved one). Different people faced with the same situation, or the same person in different stages of life, may not necessarily display the same reactions to the critical event. And although crisis is not a pathological state, in that it does not compromise our overall mental health, it does temporarily alter the way we feel, act and react to the world.

THE CRISIS CONTINUUM

A state of crisis is the total sequence of events from an individual’s normal state of functioning, or equilibrium, to an out of control state, or disequilibrium, and back to a normal state. The crisis state usually lasts approximately four to six weeks and, according to research by Crisis expert Naomi Golan, is experienced in a series of five component parts:
1. The Hazardous Event
A specific stressful occurrence, either an internal change or external blow, which occurs to an individual who is in a state of relative stability. The event can be anticipated and predictable, as in retirement, or unanticipated and accidental, as in dismissal from a job without notice.
2. The Vulnerable State
This is the subjective reaction the individual experiences both at the time of the event and afterwards. Each reaction to the event is accompanied by a range of characteristic affects: high anxiety, depression, mourning, excitement, shame, anger or hostility, as well as thought and perceptual confusion.

Individuals in a vulnerable state usually pass through a series of predictable phases. Initially they will employ their usual problem-solving measures. If these fail, there is an increase in tension and a sense of ineffectiveness. The person will then call upon “emergency” coping devices or desperate measures, and if these also fail, tension will continue to rise. Feelings of depression, helplessness and hopelessness will permeate the emotional capacity of individuals at this stage, which may result in a major breakdown of functioning abilities.
3. The Precipitating Factor
This is the link in the chain of stress-provoking events that converts the vulnerable state into the state of crisis. The precipitating factor may coincide with the initial hazardous event, such as a sudden auto accident. It may be also be a negligible incident, as in the announcement of an upcoming lay-off, but which overloads a person’s coping mechanisms and plunges him or her into a state of crisis.

Not every hazardous or precipitating factor carries the same stress potential. Some blows are so powerful that they immediately produce maximum disequilibrium, as in the case of the recent fatal shooting of workers at the Connecticut State Lottery Office. Others might initially be handled satisfactorily by the person, but the high stress caused by additional blows may have a cumulative effect that eventually weakens coping abilities to the breaking point.
4. The Active Crisis State
This state results when the individual’s coping skills have broken down, tension has topped and disequilibrium occurs. This actual state lasts approximately four to six weeks and includes psychological and physical turmoil. Some common reactions shared by most people in an active state of crisis include:

  • Extreme feelings of helplessness, hopelessness
  • Inability to feel in control of emotions and behaviors
  • Eating disorders
  • Immobilization
  • Sleeping disorders and nightmares
  • Inability to concentrate or perform normal functions
  • Aimless activity
  • Somatic or physical distress: stomach disorders, headaches, fatigue, nervous disorders, intense fear, anger, guilt and other emotions

Possibly the most striking reaction experienced by an individual during an active crisis state is the painful preoccupation with events leading up to the crisis. A period of gradual readjustment and remobilization will evolve during this state as the person becomes attuned to their new situation.
5. Reintegration
The restoration of the individual’s normal state of functioning, or equilibrium, is actually an extension of active crisis, as the tension and anxiety gradually subside and some form of reorganization takes place.

Reintegration involves the person’s attempts to understand, objectively and subjectively, what has happened. The release of emotions and appropriate acceptance of the crisis situation also takes place during this time. Finally, the individual adopts constructive means for dealing with the problems that arise and allows others to help in regaining control of his or her life.

A maladaptive outcome to a crisis increases defense mechanisms, hostility and denial in a person, all of which may lead to a feeling of lowered self-esteem and failure. Conversely, an adaptive resolution to a crisis can result in an individual experiencing feelings of mastery and increased self-esteem that can lead to a heightened ability to cope with future crisis events.

Let’s return to the employee mentioned earlier whose wife passed away seven months ago. The complaints of missing deadlines, sloppy reports and snapping at team members is consistent with the crisis reactions listed above. The worker is not able to concentrate and perform normal functions, causing missed deadlines and sloppy reports. His inability to control his emotions and behaviors have made a once congenial person into a moody, hostile worker.

The manager was correct in her assessment that the death of the worker’s wife was tied to his current behavior. But why is the employee displaying these reactions seven months after his wife’s death? Because reactions to crisis events are sometimes postponed, much to the surprise of the person experiencing the crisis and to those around him.

Picture this employee remaining calm enough to arrange the funeral of his wife, comfort his children and organize the travel arrangements for family members. Imagine this individual fighting his emotional upheaval to prevent his family, friends and co-workers from viewing him as out of control or helpless. While other members of his family displayed reactions immediately following the death, the husband’s crisis state was delayed for months. It was only when a triggering event, their wedding anniversary, created a vulnerable state in the worker that the force of the crisis was leveled on him seven months after his wife’s death.

The employee is now exhibiting the reactions within the acute crisis state and in time will enter the reintegration stage. It is at this juncture that a Human Resources practitioner skilled in crisis intervention may assist the individual find comfort, learn new coping skills and grow from the crisis.

CRISIS INTERVENTION

The goal of crisis intervention is to offer immediate emotional support, clarification and guidance to cushion the impact of the critical event. A person in crisis is usually highly motivated to accept and use help. A small amount of aid, focused properly, can achieve greater results than more extensive help during periods of less emotional vulnerability.

Crisis intervention is not a substitute for long-term therapy, nor are crisis interventionists considered therapists. However, professionals who are skilled in managing complex human dynamics such as Human Resources managers, can learn to use crisis intervention to significantly reduce trauma and increase the coping skills of troubled employees. Crisis intervention expert Lydia Rappoport suggests the following goals for intervention:

  • Relief of symptoms
  • Restoration of control to pre-crisis level of functioning
  • Assistance in gaining perspective on the crisis event
  • Identification and building of new coping methods to increase functioning abilities

Helping people who are in so fragile a state requires great patience, sensitivity and skill. Imagine telling a person who just lost a loved one to “get over it” or “keep a stiff upper lip.” These minimizing statements of advice and others can enhance the feelings of helplessness and loss of control the person in crisis is already experiencing. Crisis intervention is not about a “quick fix” to a critical event nor is it a substitute for long-term therapy. It is a short-term effort to help a person through a temporary emotional upheaval.

THE PHASES OF CRISIS INTERVENTION

For Human Resources practitioners, time constraints may be the greatest challenge to providing intervention in crisis situations. As much as time may be limited, brief and purposeful intervention may be vital to the readjustment of people in crisis. Many crime victims recall vividly the few kind words whispered by a police officer or hospital nurse following the crisis.

Assistance to an employee during the acute crisis state may relieve the employee’s pain and promote an appropriate resolution. During this time, intervention travels through five distinctive phases, which are:

  • Phase One: Establishing a Relationship
  • Phase Two: Assessment/Problem Identification
  • Phase Three: Problem Solving
  • Phase Four: Determining a Plan
  • Phase Five: Disengaging and Closure

Phase One: Establishing a Relationship

This initial phase of crisis intervention involves defining the roles, responsibilities and expectations of the individual in crisis and the HR interventionist. Establishing a relationship requires that each becomes acquainted and comfortable with the other, and that goals are set for their interaction. During this phase, the interventionist:

  • Creates a safe and supportive climate
  • Establishes ground rules
  • Defines roles, expectations and goals
  • Allows the individual to vent
  • Sets a slow and deliberate pace

Phase Two: Assessment/Problem Identification

Assessment involves gathering information through questioning and empathic listening. Assessments focus on identifying the present problem of the employee, how the person is defining the current crisis and how the crisis is impacting him or her at this point. Crisis assessments target “here and now” issues with respect to the employee’s needs and form the basis of information used during the problem solving phase of intervention. The focus of this assessment phase involves the following areas of inquiry:

  • Questions regarding the state of crisis
  • Questions concerning the individual’s level of functioning
  • Questions to determine the level of danger involved
  • Questions concerning available support and resources

Phase Three: Problem Solving

Once the interventionist and employee have defined the problem that contributed to the state of crisis, the interventionist helps the individual gain an understanding of the crisis while facilitating the person’s release of feelings. During this phase the interventionist focuses energy on:

  • Clarifying the issues surrounding the crisis
  • Highlighting the person’s strengths and past successes in resolving similar crises
  • Offering different perspectives on the individual’s concerns by providing interpretations
  • Confronting resistant and regressive behaviors which are inhibiting the employee’s abilities to seek resolution
  • Promoting the exploration of new coping strategies for the individual

Phase Four: Determining a Plan

This phase concerns focusing on a clear, realistic and specific plan for resolution. The focus on this phase is to help the employee determine an accomplishable plan with pre-set goals and actions. The interventionist helps the client to:

  • Set priorities
  • Detail the plan in terms of immediate tasks which need to be accomplished
  • Form a pact with the interventionist to ensure completion of the plan
  • Examine “what if” scenarios and other complications which may undermine the plan
  • Walk through the plan slowly and carefully to ensure each component is achievable
  • Determine a time frame for the plan
  • Determine follow-up activities, including involvement of other referrals and resources

Phase Five: Disengaging and Closure

This phase is nearly as difficult for the interventionist as it is for the person in crisis. A tremendous emotional bond is built between the two and there may be hesitancy on both party’s parts to end the intervention. This phase requires a meaningful plan by the interventionist that includes:

  • Reviewing the experience of the intervention with the individual
  • Engendering hope in the employee’s ability to accomplish the plan and grow from the crisis
  • Remind the individual of alternative plans and actions should problems with the plan emerge
  • Revisit the pact negotiated between the interventionist and the employee in the event that additional help is needed
  • Review all referral and resource information again for accuracy and appropriateness
  • Thank the employee for taking a risk and having courage to work through the crisis

CRISIS INTERVENTION SKILLS

Crisis intervention skills are specialized counseling skills designed to help interventionists organize their thoughts, actions and decisions while working with someone in a state of emotional upheaval. These skills listed below serve as the foundation for crisis intervention.
Engaging
Engaging involves establishing a relationship and promoting a dialogue with the person in crisis. Specific ways to engage include:

  • Give the person your undivided attention.
  • Create a sense of comfort by asking if you could get the person something to drink.
  • Ask what you can do to help.
  • Explain your role and interest in helping.
  • Show appreciation for the individual’s decision to see you.
  • Advise the person of time parameters.
  • Be honest – if you don’t know an answer, advise the individual that you’ll find out.
  • Never lie or pretend to have an answer.
    vFlex your style to adapt to the cultural, gender, age, educational background or other aspects of the individual’s diversity that may influence the intervention.

Establish Calmness
During a crisis, individuals experience intense fear, emotional upset, and feelings of loss of control. Establishing calmness during an intervention helps to build a feeling of safety and groundedness for the individual. Skills involved in creating a state of calmness include:

  • Provide a quiet and private space.
  • Set and maintaining a slow and purposeful pace of communication.
  • Communicate confidence and comfort through words, tone of voice and non-verbal body language.
  • Keep aware of and in control of stress levels.
  • Help the person slow the pace of communication by guiding them to breathe more slowly and collect their thoughts.
  • Allow for silences.

Empower
Crisis interventionists serve as facilitators of resolutions, whose role it is to guide and help people in crisis. Therefore, empowering involves the conscious decision of the interventionist to assist the individual in resolving the crisis, while resisting the temptation to infantilize or control the resolution. Empowerment skills include:

  • Offer interpretations of the individual’s statements to help them gain perspective on their situations.
  • Assist in problem-solving and decision-making by sorting through issues and options for resolutions.
  • Suggest options toward resolutions the individual had not considered.
  • Serve as an information and referral source.
  • Promote actions to be taken by the individual.

Listen Empathically
Empathic listening skills involve actively and compassionately gathering and processing what the individual is communicating. Empathic listening skills assist interventionists in understanding information they receive from the person in crisis and allow the individual to hear themselves in a reframed, sensitive manner, through the interventionist. The following list highlights fundamental empathic listening skills:

  • Listen for understanding by separating the content, process and context of the individual’s communication process.
  • Ask the individual to repeat their thought or statement if it is unclear.
  • Acknowledge the individual’s feelings and allow venting.
  • Maintain objectivity and non-judgmentalism.
  • Use reflective statements to acknowledge your understanding of the person’s feelings, experiences or statements.
  • Clarify the person’s statements and observations to ensure mutual understanding.
  • Summarize the information and reflect it back to the individual.

Questioning
Crisis interventionists use questioning techniques to elicit information, reflect experiences, probe feelings and pursue resolutions. The process of asking questions, in terms of the interventionist’s style, tone of voice, pacing and wording, is as important as the content of the questions. Types of questions and several questioning techniques are listed below:

  • Provide questions that are clear, concrete and specific.
  • Provide pauses to allow the individual to process the question.
  • Offer one question at a time to allow the individual to maintain focus and control.
  • Be aware that questions may “trigger” emotional reactions, for example, questions about events leading to the crisis.
  • Use open-ended questions to engage the individual in a dialogue and to pursue information gathering.
  • Use probing questions to request that the individual elaborate on a statement or feeling.
  • Use close-ended questions when a “yes” or “no” answer is sought or when speaking with a person who is unable to understand abstract or complex thoughts.
  • Use questions concerning “how” and “what” to focus the individual on immediate concerns.
  • Limit questions concerning “why” which may imply to individuals that they have to justify or defend themselves.
  • Limit questions that probe too heavily into the individual’s history and which may be more appropriate for long-term therapy.

Validate
Validating skills involve acknowledging the individual’s attempts to seek assistance, understand and resolve the crisis. Since people in crisis feel helpless and out of control, it becomes essential to remind individuals of their courage in seeking help. Validating skills for interventionists include:

  • Acknowledge the courage it took for the individual to come forward.
  • Support the individual’s efforts to resolve the crisis.
  • Remind the individual throughout the intervention process that she or he is currently in control of the crisis and actively working with you to seek a resolution.
  • Celebrate each insight, action and step the individual takes to resolve the crisis.

Focus
People in crisis may be unable to organize or express their thoughts and feelings, which may magnify their sense of a lack of control, hopelessness and helplessness. In fact, the listening skills of people in the acute state of crisis is severely lower than normal. Interventionists can use focusing skills to assist individuals in concentrating on immediate concerns, and in sorting and organizing thoughts and feelings. Focusing skills include:

  • Accept the individual’s current world view, emotional upset, and functional level.
  • Use clear, direct and concrete language when communicating with a person in crisis.
  • Limit questioning and probing to one issue or feeling at a time.
  • Paraphrase what is being heard if the individual is rambling or out of focus.
  • Direct the individual’s attention to the “here and now.”
  • Use direct or indirect statements to lead the individual to discuss specific events and/or explore feelings relating to the crisis state.
  • Repeat questions and statements if the individual is unable to answer or remember.
  • Use direct or indirect statements to lead the individual to discuss past, present and future coping methods used to resolve the current crisis.
  • Minimize distractions, time constraints and extraneous issues.

Human Resources Crisis Intervention in Action
The employee whose wife passed away serves as a valuable case practice for Human Resources professionals engaged in crisis intervention efforts. Encouraged to speak with Human Resources by his manager, the employee agreed to meet with a HR interventionist for approximately one hour per week for six weeks. The HR manager used the phases of crisis intervention to guide the meetings.

The comfort and safety of a private office in the Human Resources Department allowed the interventionist and employees build their relationship of trust and intimacy. During this phase the interventionist encouraged the employee to talk about his wife’s passing, his feelings of guilt and sorrow that he couldn’t express earlier and his feelings of failure at his work.

Skilled questioning and listening by the Human Resources professional helped the employee examine his current crisis reactions, connect them to his wife’s death and identify a recent wedding anniversary as the precipitating factor for his acute state. The interventionist also learned that one of the employee’s adult children is encouraging him to sell the house he and his wife had lived in for twenty years and that he is resistant to the idea. The employee shared that his family is also a strong source of support for him but that he is embarrassed to express his true feelings and needs to them.

After a few meetings in which establishment of trust, release of feelings and problem identification occurred, the interventionist asked open-ended questions to clarify the employee’s resistance to selling his house. After much silence and quiet deliberation, the employee confessed that he does want to move but is afraid of betraying his wife. The interventionist acknowledged his feelings and offered different perspectives. This helped the employee accept his wishes to sell the house. The interventionist also explored the employee’s ability to seek support from his family about his decision.

The interventionist then helped the employee set a plan to determine if the employee wished to sell or remain in his house. Two activities the interventionist suggested involved the employee writing a list of benefits and concerns regarding the house and using his family as a resource. A time frame was placed on the activities to coincide with their next meeting.

After the sixth session, the employee advised the interventionist that he decided to sell the house and buy an apartment close to his children. He also advised that his children were helping him sell the contents of his house, except for mementos his wanted to keep that reminded him of his wife and children. The employee also spoke about a new project he was just assigned at work and how the meetings with the interventionist were helping him to concentrate on his work. The interventionist congratulated the employee on his ability to regain concentration and suggested that he consider how his abilities to function have improved.

During the seventh session, the interventionist and employee reviewed his growth since their first meeting. They talked about their meetings coming to a close and agreed that they would have one more meeting to determine what goals were accomplished and what remained to be done. At the last meeting, the interventionist and employee reviewed their experience together, sharing their memories of initial concerns and challenges and the growth that emerged throughout the phases of the intervention. The interventionist applauded the employee’s efforts to resolve his difficult situation and pointed to several actions he had taken to grow from his tragedy. The interventionist suggested that his move into an apartment near his children would give him valuable new memories and suggested that if the need arise, the interventionist would be available to him. Finally, the employee and interventionist closed their meeting and agreed that they would occasionally check in on one another in the future.

CONCLUSION

Given the overtaxed schedules of human resources professionals, taking time to help an employee in crisis may in and of itself create a crisis event. Yet, helping people during times of need is a primary function of human resources.

This article offered the “nuts and bolts” of crisis intervention, but the heart of it, the unparalleled enrichment of helping others, must be experienced firsthand. Human Resources professionals may learn to use crisis intervention techniques and can serve as valuable referrals to external crisis services. So, as employees continue to occasionally fall overboard into oceans of despair and confusion, human resources professionals can provide the valuable lifeline of safety, stability and solace they need so desperately.

SUGGESTED READING ON CRISIS INTERVENTION

Dernocoeur, K.B. Streetsense: Communication, Safety and Control. Bowie, Maryland: Brady Communications, 1984.
Golan, Naomi. Treatment in Crisis Situations. New York, New York: The Free Press (MacMillan), 1978.
Greenstone, J.L., and Leviton, S.C. The Crisis Intervener’s Handbook. Dallas, Texas: 1979.
Okun, Barbara F. Effective Helping: Interviewing and Counseling Techniques, Third Edition. Monterey, California: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1987.
Seashore, Charles N. and Edith W., and Weinberg, Gerald M. What Did You Say?: The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback. North Attleborough, Massachusetts: Douglas Charles Press, 1991.
Slaikeu, Dr. Karl, and Lawhead, Steve. The Phoenix Factor: Surviving and Growing through Personal Crisis. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1985.
Warner, C.G. Conflict Intervention in Social and Domestic Violence. Bowie, Maryland: Robert J. Brady, 1981.
Warner, C.G. Emergency Care: Assessment and Intervention. St. Louis, Missouri: C.V. Mosby, 1978.