As devastating bushfires continue to ravage much of Australia, employers are thinking about how to best support staff.
Catastrophic fires have been burning across Australia since September 2019, so far claiming over 20 human lives and the lives of over a billion animals, destroying over 1,800 homes, and damaging an area of land greater than the size of Scotland.
The destruction is staggering. The national bill has already hit $700 million, according to the Insurance Council of Australia, and is expected to grow.
Many organisations will have staff directly affected by the fires. Others will have staff who know affected people. But really, all Australians are touched by this disaster in some way.
How should workplaces react to this tragedy? HRM spoke with a crisis management expert and looked into relevant research.
If you’re an HR professional in a bushfire-affected area and you’ve got a story that you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can share your story here. Anonymous stories are also welcomed.
For workplaces that are directly affected
For organisations that are already based in the fire/evacuation zones or are at risk of this happening, or for those who might employ staff who live in these regions, there are some important things to consider.
“First off, we have to acknowledge that this is not a bad day or a bit of a rough patch, it’s a catastrophic event for many individuals and businesses,” says Allan Briggs, CEO of Crisis Shield, a crisis management and training organisation.
For workplaces that are directly affected by the fires, Briggs says leaders must communicate effectively with staff and ensure all information is factual and up-to-date.
“There can be a lot of assumptions made [in a crisis]. It’s important that you’re getting information from a trusted source because speculation can spiral out of control.
“People also need clear instructions of what’s expected of them,” Briggs adds.
For those who may be unsure about how to communicate with staff during a crisis, Briggs uses the following communication framework.
- What we know – establish the facts
- What are the impacts on your organisation? This should involve continuous communication going out to staff – daily/weekly/monthly, whatever best suits the situation.
- What you don’t know – it’s important to be transparent about this.
- What you’re doing about it – this could be as simple as saying that you’re donating to bushfire relief.
- What you want staff to do – again, this can be as simple as saying you’ll match dollar for dollar any staff donations or that you’d like them to join the fundraising event you’ve organised.
The kind of information you might consider conveying:
- The latest information about the fires – locations/severity/damage in the area.
- Workplace issues – what work sites are affected, will they be open, when, what commuting routes are closed, etc.
- Staff concerns – everything from how leave policies or pay policies are changing to where staff should look to for help.
- Sharing information about colleagues living in affected areas (make sure they give consent to have this information shared).
- For those not directly affected, information about how they can help (donations and fundraisers, for example).
While it’s important to keep communication flowing, you also don’t want to overload staff – especially those who may be grieving. It’s all about bite-sized pieces of information.
“Don’t send out a 20 page email. Keep it short and succinct. Regular short communications are better than waiting to say something. A 30 second video from the CEO that’s based around the crisis communication framework [above] is often effective.”
Planning for the unthinkable
For a company in the middle of a crisis, the first instinct might be PR – sending a message out to customers/clients/members. While this is important, it shouldn’t come before HR. Work from the inside out; take care of your people first.
To do this, it’s a good idea to already have a plan in place. These kinds of crisis management plans are sometimes low on an organisation’s to-do lists and events like these bushfires often shock them into action. Briggs says his company’s phones were “running hot on Monday”.
Each business’s emergency plan will differ slightly, depending on the nature of their work, but Briggs has noticed a few things some businesses forget to consider.
“We can’t rely on mobile network coverage. The carriers can go down or they can get overloaded, which is exactly what’s happened. It’s great that we’ve got social media platforms like WhatsApp, but we’ve even lost some of those things. We encourage some of our clients to have satellite phones.”
Another thing you should consider is setting up an email continuity service system, so you can still send out critical communications to staff in the event of a server failure.
“Think about the old fashioned details, like having staff’s home address in case you need to go around door knocking to check that they’re okay, or the details of their next of kin,” he adds.
This seems fairly straightforward, but Briggs is surprised by how often the only details a company has on file are employee mobile numbers and email addresses. He recalled a recent incident where a staff member had been injured at work and all the organisation had was his own mobile number. The accident happened during weekend work, so no one could get into the office to access more details.
Another mistake he sees a lot of companies make is automatically making their CEO the lead in a crisis. This is a bad idea because often a CEO can be interstate or overseas on business, or they can be the victim or perpetrator of an incident.
“We find it’s better to have the CEO sitting off to the side and acting as a spokesperson with someone else leading the critical incident team.”
Think about the core people who will be responsible for communications, HR functions, operations and action planning and make sure everyone in the business knows who they are.
For workplaces that aren’t directly affected
If you’ve determined that your organisation is not directly affected, Briggs’ communication framework can still be a useful tool for communicating with staff who are experiencing anxiety and sadness.
Briggs suggests holding social events, like a fundraiser, to create a sense of community or offering staff flexible hours if they need time to digest or de-stress about the bushfires.
“It’s also important to celebrate your business’ success. Be clear about your achievements, goals and plans so people have something else to focus on.”
And, perhaps most importantly, if your company doesn’t already have an emergency plan, get one. Research shows the simple act of having a plan in place, and communicating that plan to staff, has immense business benefits.
Employee trust levels and a company’s stock price both rise when an organisation handles a crisis effectively, according to a 2013 research paper from Cornell University.
The authors of the paper, Desiree Thomas and Cindy Zhou, cite various studies showcasing the positive knock on effects of implementing an emergency plan.
For example, following a two week power outage in Quebec, Canada, a research paper from 2005 found that “perceptions of procedural fairness of the human resource decisions made during a natural disaster predict the later work attitudes of job satisfaction and organisational commitment.” This means not only does the substance of the policy matter, so does the way in which it’s communicated.
Drawing on his experience of working through the Black Saturday fires in 2009, Briggs says it’s important to remember the impact the fires will have in six to 12 months time.
“[The fires] are front of mind now, which is terrific, but down the track people start to forget. We go back to work and get on with our lives. But it will take these towns years to recover. It’s worthwhile for employers to put a note in their diary for six or 12 months time to re-evaluate what they’ve done and what else they could do.
“You could encourage staff to take holidays in those towns or to donate again.”
Briggs’ final piece of advice to businesses is to try and remain positive.
“There’s a lot of talk about climate change, business practice and leadership. All of that is important but at the end of the day, it’s important that we roll up our sleeves and do our part to help.”
If you’d like to do your part to support the firefighters and those in fire-affected areas, some great places to donate to include the Australian Red Cross, the NSW Rural Fire Service, the South Australia bushfire appeal and Victoria’s Country Fire Authority.