It’s challenging to be an HR professional in a city struggling to cope with the rolling crisis created by a series of earthquakes, explains Chris Till, general manager of human resources at Christchurch City Council.
With 2900 employees, the council is the second-largest local authority in New Zealand. Over the past few years, it’s been tough to keep the organisation going in order to provide vital services to the local community.
“People scattered to the four winds. Some left and never returned. It affected the infrastructure and led to concerns about building safety, so we had people working from home. We had to do workarounds to keep people working and our services going,” Till says.
“Despite all that, within two days we were collecting people’s rubbish. We had business as usual up and running very quickly.”
The first step was to divide the executive team into two. “There was a controller on a rotating shift who ran the emergency side of things and then an HR role to keep the organisation going.”
Although Till says it was “a struggle” to get the HR-related issues on the table in the face of massive physical destruction, four priorities were established. “We had to ensure we got people paid and we needed to lead and communicate through our existing structures.
Essentials in a crisis
We also decided not to put out any ‘rah-rah’ messages as they don’t work, and we set out to provide a normalised situation as soon as possible.”
Careful planning and a strong culture are essential in a crisis, he says. “The first thing to do in preparation is to develop increased leadership and have strong engagement so your people want to make things happen. Heart and leadership are vital to the survivability of the organisation so it doesn’t fall apart in a crisis situation.”
Although it has been a difficult couple of years, there have been some benefits. “The silver lining was that culturally the organisation has grown and moved away from an attitude of ‘suck it up’, to one that allows people to put their hand up and say they are struggling,” Till explains.
“There is now a move to a more holistic approach to the person, as they may be having problems with the reconstruction of their home, their insurance cover, or even a pre-existing condition that has been exacerbated by the crisis.”
This is an important point for HR professionals. “There is a lot of research to show the rate of alcohol, drug and tobacco abuse, and relationship breakdown goes up three to four times after a crisis,” Till notes.
Despite the difficulties, the organisation has benefited from the crisis in some ways. Seven years ago, its Aon Hewitt engagement rating was 33 per cent but is now 66 per cent, placing it in the 90th percentile within Australasia.
While the earthquakes have receded, the crisis – and the HR response – is continuing. “We are in the third year of the disaster and it will be a very difficult year as people are hitting the wall. They are emotionally drained. HR needs to show empathy and be wise about seeing the signs of stress and anxiety,” Till notes.
Often the aftermath can be just as difficult as the immediate crisis and is referred to by experts as the ‘second disaster’. “People want their lives to go back to normal, but it can’t be achieved quickly.”