Whether it is due to conflict or a natural disaster, being evacuated or instructed to shelter in place is unavoidably stressful. During these sorts of experiences, managers play a vital role in shaping how their staff experience these events and, consequently, how well they cope. This resource offers advice to managers about how they can support staff and promote resilience and wellbeing before, during, and after events that culminate in evacuation or shelter in place orders.

Before

Sometimes natural disasters occur suddenly and security situations deteriorate quickly and unexpectedly. In many cases, however, the decision to evacuate some staff and/or instruct staff to shelter in place will occur after a period of escalating tension, threats, or increased risks.

After a crisis, people’s emotional experience is often the reality that they will remember most clearly. If staff feel very stressed but also feel that their managers and the organization as a whole genuinely care about them, that will make the stress easier to bear and the experience less traumatic over time.

As such, during this time of waiting and watching, managers at all levels can support the wellbeing of staff they supervise by doing some or all of the following:

§  Reduce normal workload pressure as much as possible. Recognize that staff will be anxious and distracted, and unlikely to be able to focus on work as well as they normally can.

§  Remind managers that you supervise that the role of a leader is to guide people during challenging times. Reaffirm that the IRC has selected them for a position of management responsibility, and leadership during these times is a part of that role. Send this tips sheet to any managers you supervise, and remind them of their responsibility to support the wellbeing of their staff during these times. A positive way to do this is to remind managers that the strength/capacity of the manager is dependent upon the strength/capacity of the team. So if the manager wants to be able to perform well after the crisis has passed, they will need to make sure their team members are looked after and are able to function well.

§  Be aware of and acknowledge that many staff will be experiencing conflicting emotions. Review the Self Care During Mandatory Evacuation tip sheet, which outlines some of the conflicting emotions (e.g., loss and anger) staff may be experiencing.

§  Call a meeting of all staff before the evacuation/event. If possible, gather all staff together before the event. Acknowledge that crises are testing times for people’s spirits and affirm that staff need to join together for strength and support in these times. Following are some things to cover during the meeting.  

o   Clearly communicate to staff that their physical and emotional safety is a top priority.

o   Acknowledge the loss. Loss is inherent in an evacuation or shelter in place (SIP) situation (e.g., loss of normalcy, routine, relational connection, programming momentum). Acknowledge this and the likelihood that staff will be feeling a mixture of emotions.

o   Remind staff of the bigger picture. This evacuation or SIP event is (hopefully) a short-term action in response to specific events. At some point (hopefully) things will return to “normal.” The context will continue to change, and when it is safe to resume programming, IRC will (hopefully) be among the first to do so.

o   Cast a vision of a hopeful future. Cast a vision for people to give themselves to that’s bigger than their individual struggles and suffering. Talk about any plans for resuming programs after this event. Convey hope and realistic optimism regarding the resumption of programming.

o   Encourage staff to take care of themselves. Remind them again that “when the dust settles there is going to be even more humanitarian need, and we will need our people to be functioning well so that we can all do the best assistance work possible.” Send any staff who may be evacuated the Self Care During Mandatory Evacuation tips sheet.

o   Say goodbye. If an evacuation is imminent or likely, use this as a chance to say goodbye/“until we meet again”.

§  Remind staff about the staff support resources available to them. Remind staff about the EARP resources available to them (including counselling, and 1:1 management consultations) and encourage them to access those resources. Also, consider seeking counselling or coaching support yourself. Whether you are present on site or managing remotely, do not underestimate the strain of feeling responsible for staff (and, often, simultaneously helpless) during events like these.

§  Acknowledge that the IRC as an organization needs to make some challenging decisions during times like these. There are always tensions inherent in operationalizing organizational values, especially during times like these. Be prepared to acknowledge and explain these decisions and tensions (e.g., the fact that there are different levels of risk experienced by expatriate and national staff.)

§  Acknowledge and celebrate the importance and value of national staff. If it were not for national staff, the IRC would not be able to operate any programs.

§  Ensure clear plans for communication are in place. If a phone/radio tree is in place, test this before the event. Ensure the practice run covers what to do in a scenario where you are unable to reach the person tasked to you in the call tree. Additional communication considerations include:

o   If the event involves a cyclone or other looming natural disaster, make concrete plans with staff for how you will contact each other to pass along information, and when you will (if able) assemble together after the event (e.g., Wednesday at 8am).

o   For any staff staying behind, emphasize the importance of maintaining regular contact with each other, if possible, and make plans for when/how that will happen (e.g., every Friday at 1pm).

o   If communication will involve a manager sending out SMS text messages, the manager should clarify the anticipated timeframe for people to receive messages (e.g., I will plan to send out a text message update every day at 6PM). This enables people to conserve their mobile phone batteries, and only switch on their phones around 5:30pm.

§  Update staff fully and regularly. Keep staff regularly updated regarding any security concerns and plans for evacuation or SIP orders. The more staff know about the context and likely organizational decisions/instructions, the more in control and prepared they will feel. Likewise if staff know when they will next receive an update, the more in control and able to cope they will feel.

 

During

During the hours/days when an evacuation is actually occurring, you can support staff in the following important ways:

§  Do everything possible to ensure the necessary logistics have been attended to, that the evacuation proceeds smoothly and safely, and that evacuated staff have comfortable and safe temporary accommodations to go to while next steps are being considered.

§  Update all staff (including those sheltering in place) as fully and frequently as you are able, answer questions, and reinforce the core message that staff safety is a top priority. In a communication vacuum, people tend to assume the worst, so more frequent communication is better than not enough, and delivered in predictable intervals is best of all.

 

After

If the crisis precipitating the evacuation or shelter in place orders occurred quite suddenly, review the tips outlined above under “the BEFORE” section and employ as many of them as possible now. In addition:

§  Locate and account for all staff. Connect with all staff who have been evacuated or are sheltering in place as soon as possible to confirm that they are safe.

§  Communicate to management above you the importance of accounting for all staff. Depending on the local context, there may be pressure to resume programming as soon as possible after the evacuation (particularly in the case of natural disasters). Communicate to management above you the importance of staff care for team morale. It may be possible to commence some emergency response activities while the process of accounting for staff is underway.

§  Recognize that staff on the ground will likely have urgent personal priorities. Staff who have been sheltering in place probably have physical and psychosocial needs very similar to the host population beneficiaries. Before you expect them to be able to concentrate on work (including emergency response programming following a natural disaster), recognize that staff who have been sheltering in place will want/need to ensure that their families are safe and being cared for. Staff who have been sheltering in place need to be viewed with the same compassion as would be extended to a beneficiary.

§  Ask staff how they’re doing. Be aware of the various reactions and the confusing mixture of emotions that staff may be experiencing. Be mindful of this during conversations with staff. Questions you may want to ask include:

o   How are you feeling right now?

o   Do you have any feelings today you didn’t have yesterday?

o   Now that we have the gift of hindsight, is there anything we did or decided yesterday that you are having second thoughts about? Anything you regret or wish we had done a bit differently?

§  Remind staff that there are variables and forces operating here that are outside your/their control. Remind them that you and other managers are doing the best you can given your current knowledge and assessment of context to make the best decisions possible. As context changes, so too will those risk assessments and the plan of action.

§  As much as possible, resist felt “response urgency” and slow down. Recognize that national and expat staff on the ground will usually be carrying an increased stress load relative to expatriate and other support staff who fly in/back in after a situation is deemed safe. Slow things down. There will be a lot of felt pressure from the organization, the international response community, and the crisis dynamics at play in the situation. However, if you want your teams to be functioning well in the medium to long term, take a breath and slow things down on the front end during the immediate crisis response. This will help protect and serve the staff who are most impacted, who are the very staff who will be most integral to programs in the long term.

§  Consider scheduling an operational and/or psychological debrief 30-45 days after the crisis. Immediately after the crisis may not be the best time to conduct a group debrief of the experience. However, it may be very useful to schedule one or more debriefs several weeks after the crisis. These group debriefs can serve several functions, one of which is checking in on how staff are doing at that time.

§  Seek support yourself. As mentioned previously, managing a team during events like this can be very stressful. Consider seeking counselling or coaching support or accessing other resources via the EARP program.

 

§  Talk with your manager about specific things the organisation can do to help the staff whose families have been impacted. The IRC’s EARP covers access to counselling for staff members and their families. In addition, the funding guidelines may permit the organisation to offer the same sorts of additional assistance to staff family members as would be provided to other beneficiaries, if it can be demonstrated that the beneficiary selection criteria is consistent with relevant standards, donor guidelines, and international best practices. If it is not possible for families of staff members to access goods and services procured using donor funding, it may be possible to get donations from IRC staff members working in offices in different countries. This is a way that staff impacted by the event can understand that their IRC colleagues in other countries care for their wellbeing.