Disasters can leave employees anxious, displaced and unable to work. Compassion and clear communication help restore productivity and a sense of normalcy.

Natural disasters, pandemics and other disruptive events create a host of problems for company leaders. Everything from structural damage to lost productivity and employee assistance must be handled simultaneously.

Although it may be tempting to crack the whip and get back to business as usual as quickly as possible, it’s best to avoid rushing stressed, traumatized employees back to work. They probably won’t be able to focus on their jobs until they have a handle on their situation, and they deserve the time and support it takes to get there.

Remember what the “H” stands for

There’s a reason we call it “human” resources. At the end of the day, every organization is about people: those who work with us and those we serve. So, when a disaster or crisis of any kind strikes, the human element should take priority over business and industry. It really is that simple.

Compassion and clear communication can foster long-lasting results, such as increased camaraderie among employees and loyalty that transcends your organization. Doing what’s right for those in need will resonate not only with your entire workforce but also your customers.

Here are a few tips to help you find the right balance between what the company needs and what individuals need in order to heal.

1. Communicate frequently through multiple channels

During and after a disaster, employees need to know what’s going on at the office and what’s expected of them. When helping employees deal with change, it’s important to restore some sense of normalcy.

Be the voice of reason and source of comfort your employees need during this critical time, using a straightforward tone that conveys confidence and security. You don’t want to make false promises, but your messaging should be supportive and hopeful rather than despondent.

Use every channel available, including company-wide and department-level emails, messages posted on your company intranet and internet sites, communication apps, texts, social media accounts and even signs posted onsite.

Using multiple channels simultaneously helps you reach people wherever they are, which can vary in a disaster, depending on the availability of power and access to desktops or mobile devices.

Check in regularly with your employees and encourage them to do the same. Keep in mind that power shortages and outages are common during disasters, so make your messages as brief as possible.

2. Be specific about next steps

Once the initial impact and shock of a devastating event have passed, everyone’s attention will begin to turn toward cleanup and restoration efforts. As this phase gets underway, it’s especially important to keep your workforce informed about what’s next.

Don’t assume your team knows what you expect, especially for unprecedented events. Your communication with them should spell out everything in very literal terms, such as:

  • Office hours for the days/weeks ahead (including modified or regular schedules)
  • Flexibility to work remotely or part-time (if that’s an option)
  • How to log time off work due to a disaster (PTO or weather day, etc.)
  • Whether it’s okay to bring their children into the office if school is out
  • How often they need to update their supervisor on their availability
  • Which parts of the building are unsafe or not functional (if applicable)
  • Road conditions and traffic work-arounds
  • Dress codes, if relaxed from your usual protocol

Depending on the disaster and how your company fared, you may need to update employees on work hours and traffic once or twice a day. To build a sense of normalcy, try to send your messages on a regular schedule, for example, every morning at 7 a.m. and every evening at 5 p.m.

3. Facilitate recovery assistance

There’s no way to sugar-coat this: Employees recovering from a natural disaster or other crisis are going to need support.

Your company may have special funds earmarked for employee assistance. But even if it doesn’t, you can still make this difficult time a little easier for your employees by putting them in contact with organizations that can help them. Include contact information (links to websites, phone numbers and physical addresses) for federal and local agencies, churches and community centers.

4. Coordinate volunteer efforts

Your employees who fared well through the disaster will naturally want to help their coworkers and the surrounding community.

Giving employees the means to support their coworkers and community helps reduce the stress everyone is feeling, whether directly or indirectly impacted. It also creates a source of pride and purpose when employees are able to work with their company to support fellow employees and the community.

Create a command center

Facilitate company-wide volunteerism by coordinating an internal command center where managers and employees can directly communicate with one another about immediate and ongoing needs.

This can be as simple as setting up a private group on social media or creating a page on your company’s intranet. A digital command center can be especially useful when trying to manage remote teams scattered across the country.

If you’re a smaller company or don’t want to bother with creating specific pages on social media or the intranet, consider sending daily emails with updated needs and information on how to help.

If electronic media isn’t an option due to lapses in service, consider a daily phone check-in or onsite signup sheet. No need to overthink it – just get it going.

Keep things simple

Don’t overlook the obvious. Make it easy for employees and customers to give to local relief efforts by adding a donation button to your website. You can also provide links to donation sites in your email messages or signature.

Never underestimate the power of even the simplest act of kindness. After a natural disaster like a hurricane, there’s usually a great demand for demolition and reconstruction of buildings and structures.

But you don’t have to own a tool belt or be a do-it-yourself repair guru to be a huge help. First responders, agency workers and volunteers will be working long hours to rebuild communities. They’re all going to need food, water and supplies. They may also need child or elderly care for any dependents in their care, especially if schools and assisted living centers have been impacted. As is appropriate, encourage employees to be errand runners, food deliverers, babysitters, clothing distributors or gift card donors.

In the wake of a larger-scale emergency across a broader area, as in the case of a pandemic, it may be trickier to coordinate responses, especially if your company has remote team members in different communities. What’s acceptable and allowed in one place my not be permitted in another town – even when they’re just miles away.

Still, you can help team members cope by being a role model.

Lead by example your employees and other business owners and managers. Get involved with grassroots volunteer efforts in your own area. Volunteer to provide support for non-profits or offer to lead a webinar in your community on something about which you have specialized knowledge, such as coaching remote workers or navigating a business through previous crises. Witnessing a company’s leadership team roll up their own sleeves to serve can buoy employee spirits.

Bottom line: It doesn’t matter how you help. Every contribution, large or small, is a step closer to regrowth and prosperity for you, your employees, your customers and the community (or communities) you serve.

5. Take care of customers

This is a two-prong strategy. First, you’ll want to help those customers directly affected by the disaster or crisis. That means providing the necessities and survival items people may need from a humanitarian standpoint.

If your volunteer and recovery efforts don’t specifically include your customers, consider creating a separate initiative that addresses their needs if possible. You may even contemplate partnering with them as part of your volunteer efforts, in order to provide assistance to a larger population.

The second prong of this strategy is about the business side of caring for customers. You may be working to serve them with only a skeleton crew, a result of displaced or disoriented employees.

Communicating with customers is key, so that they understand what’s going on and how you’re dealing with it. They’ll likely be reasonable and understand that you’re not able to provide your normal level of service. However, let them know what you’re doing to handle at least their most critical needs, and then make sure to deliver on that promise.

Yes, this may mean extra hours for employees who are able and willing. Yet most of your “work family” will want to help. Do what you can to ensure that employees who go the extra mile during this difficult time feel appreciated. Feed them dinner if they’re working into the night, offer them a flex day when things return to normal, or any other incentive you feel is appropriate.

6. Encourage gracious receiving

Disasters and crises often turn the tables on hard-chargers and caregivers. People who are used to helping others may suddenly find themselves in need of significant help.

But being on the receiving end of things is often much harder for these natural-born givers. Remind staff who need extra support that being a gracious recipient will not only help them work through their own trauma, but also gives volunteers and donors a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

When you encourage both gracious receiving and responsive support, you help build long-lasting teams that work well together.

7. Address survivor’s guilt

It’s not unusual for people who weren’t directly impacted by a disaster or crisis to experience what’s known as survivor’s guilt. When we see others suffering on such a large scale, we often feel guilty. Why were we spared when coworkers, friends and family are going through something so tragic?

Remind your team that guilt doesn’t help anyone. To shake it off, try to put your energy and emotion into helping others. Look at service as your way of showing gratitude for your good fortune, while helping a wonderful cause.

Service can be a welcome remedy for survivors guilt, but do keep in mind that mental health can be impacted, too. Plus, some team members may be dealing with outright grief from the loss of a loved one. Give individuals space to take care of themselves.

8. Deal with the distraction of trauma

As employees return to work, you may hear comments like, “I feel so useless. I should be out there helping people instead of just sitting here doing this.”

Your responses might take the following forms:

  • Encourage them to talk about what they’ve already done for their neighborhood or local non-profits. Acknowledge their good work, whether it was tearing out wet sheetrock or washing a neighbor’s laundry. Remind them of how much they’ve already helped.
    • Remember that not everyone, especially introverts, may feel comfortable talking about these things in a group setting. Some people may prefer a private conversation.
  • Explain to them that coming back to work revives the local economy and helps the entire region get back on its feet. It also enables them to serve customers and help keep the company (and, thus, their own livelihood) strong.

Remember, recovery is a marathon, not a sprint

Disaster recovery takes weeks, months, and sometimes even years, which can make it overwhelming when you’re trying to get things back on track.

That’s why it’s important to pace yourself, your employees and your company.

Remember that everyone has been changed as a result of this event. Many may be traumatized, having spent days or weeks dealing with their loss and the losses of those around them. They may have witnessed firsthand people’s lives piled on their front lawns or tended a loved one who suffered from illness or passed away.

No one can experience this magnitude of destruction and not be changed, and it will take time for everyone to work through it.

There’s no rulebook or set timeline for getting back to normal, or even a “new normal.” Everyone processes change differently. Check on your team’s well-being throughout the weeks following a disaster or disruptive event. You’ll likely be able to recognize when something is “not right” about them. Don’t take that lightly.

Remind them, as often as necessary, of your employee assistance program (EAP) if you have one in place, along with any other resources available to them.

Prepare for future disasters

Once things are back to normal, make sure you review and update your company’s disaster recovery plan while the event is still fresh on your mind. What worked and didn’t work during the recent disaster or crisis? Request feedback from your leadership team and key employees, and then provide the updated plan to everyone in your organization. This will help ensure you’re ready for the next disruptive event, which hopefully will be a very long time away.

For more tips on how to manage in the wake of a disaster, download our free magazine, The Insperity guide to leadership and management.