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Rapid Response to Get Employees Back to Work After a Crisis
FAQ’s for Business & Community Leaders
“Nothing will ever be the same again.” – Ted Koppel, ABC News
How can you keep employees motivated to work after they have experienced a major crisis event? Critical Incident Specialist Dwight Bain offers the following strategies as guidelines for business leaders to help their employees get safely back to work after experiencing a traumatic event. These are the most frequently asked questions by community and business leaders who are trying to balance compassion with people’s emotions with the responsibility to getting their teams back to work.
Q- Clearly experiencing a traumatic event can impact everyone on the job and in the community. Should business leaders or managers be worried about employees who, even though they weren’t directly involved with the event, may still be feeling overwhelmed, stressed, anxious or depressed?
A- Yes, managers need to pay close attention to how this crisis may have emotionally affected their team. Every single employee has likely been exposed to the crisis, either by watching images on television or the Internet about the critical incident, or through hearing about it second-hand from co-workers or others who may have witnessed more of the crisis event and are retelling the details to others in an effort to try and decompress themselves, which unfortunately tends to ‘contaminate’ others with the stress and trauma.
Basically everyone impacted by a crisis is negatively affected at some level by the stress and trauma, so leaders need to pay attention to major changes in behavior, including symptoms of excessive worry, rage, anxiety, isolation, hopelessness, revenge, confusion or panic. Even if the stress or depression symptoms are from events in their personal life other than the current crisis, employee performance is still likely to be negatively affected which ultimately reduces productivity and profitability of a business or the morale of a church or community.
Q- If they aren’t informed directly, how is a supervisor to know when a coworker is having trouble coping? Are there any red flags or warning symptoms that someone has been overwhelmed by the emotional trauma of a critical incident or crisis event?
A- Red flags of warning symptoms exist on several levels. Physical, emotional cognitive and behavioral. While this may seem like a lot to notice, the important task for managers or leaders is to be looking for major changes as ‘clues’ of an employee struggling with the overwhelming symptoms of stress and trauma. The goal is to help the employee manage this stress more effectively, and quickly return to peak performance without the negative affects of PTSD, (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Here are some of the most common symptoms to be aware of as you lead your corporate team or community through difficult and stressful events.
Chills, fatigue, nausea, fainting, twitches, vomiting, dizziness, weakness, difficulty breathing, chest pain, headaches, rapid heart rate, elevated Blood/Pressure or grinding of the teeth, etc.
Fear, guilt, grief, panic, denial, anxiety, depression, apprehension, anger, or inappropriate emotional responses, etc.
confusion, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, suspiciousness, poor concentration/memory, disorientation, difficulty solving problems, etc.
social withdrawal, antisocial acts, inability to rest, pacing, erratic movements, extreme changes in appetite, increased use of alcohol, slurring of speech, feelings of confusion or difficulty concentrating, etc.
The more symptoms present, the greater the negative impact on the individual. Managers can create an environment of healing by sharing that it is much healthier to talk about their experience or seek counseling support, instead of to just “sit and suffer in silence.”
Q- If there are signs, should a manager inform all employees of what they are so that they can be on the look out for others that may be struggling as well?
A- It is highly recommended that all employees become aware of the many negative emotions that occur after a crisis event. Team members can ask one another, “How are you doing?” or “Are you okay?” This is a bold and proactive way to insure that everyone is working together to talk openly to keep their team as strong as possible during the time of crisis. Caution should be used to not single out certain employees for strength, “Sam is a rock, he can get through anything!” or weakness, “Sally just isn’t tough enough to cut it here. She was the weak link.” As a leader it’s better to encourage every member of your team to directly deal with their emotions than to stuff them inside.
Q- In the days or weeks after a crisis many companies struggle to make up for the production time lost over during all the chaos that follows a critical incident. How does a manager balance this situation with the fact that some employees may feel they need a break from work to be with family to help themselves cope with the grief and loss?
A- The balance between business productivity and personal needs is a delicate one. Best to openly talk about performance goals. It’s okay to talk about how much time or profit was lost due to the down time from the crisis, as well as talk about the need for every member of the team to make sure that they are coping with the crisis. Leaders can bring in counselors or grief specialists to facilitate open discussions about the issues to speed the recovery process for everyone involved. Leaders can also talk about the importance of keeping up with the priority of family or other home responsibilities as a normal and healthy way to stay balanced through a crisis.
Ultimately people need to get back to work because it’s psychologically healthy to be productive and working if a person is able to. Taking a break for a few days to work through stressful emotions can be a useful way to avoid burnout later on. Limits on how much time off, or who will be responsible for certain work responsibilities is strongly suggested to keep the company as productive as possible during an employee’s absence. However, needlessly staying home to obsessively watch television or read Internet reports about the crisis will only heighten feelings of panic and hopelessness. Encourage employees to seek a healthy balance and to return to their daily routines when they feel that they can effectively do so or when their doctor or a mental health specialist has screened their needs and cleared them to safely return to the workplace.
Q- Should a manager address the well-being of employees proactively during the aftermath by encouraging discussion about the tragedy, offering time off, or other measures? Or is it best not to go looking for problems where none may appear to exist?
A- Yes! One of the greatest ways to deal with this type of crisis is to have open discussions to relieve the internal emotional pressure that usually follows trauma. Everyone should be allowed to share openly about several subjects, they are:
– How these crisis events have impacted them
– Loved ones they may have lost
– Fears about the future
– Anxiety about what will happen to the local economy because of this event
Any of these topics would be appropriate to help employees effectively cope with their emotions. The support of fellow employees will bolster hope and a feeling of connection to each other. Here is a warning though; second-guessing, blame shifting or the desire to argue about “who should have done what,” is not recommended, as it only serves to heighten frustration and anger. Remember that it is always appropriate to allow time off when an employee needs medical, psychological or other forms of professional care, and this basic right to have time to heal and recover is provided by Federal Law.
Q- Many employees undoubtedly will be seeking out media reports on the Internet and TV during work hours. Is this something to be discouraged?
A- Absolutely! Many of us can remember the picture of a firefighter carrying the bloody body of a little girl from the wreckage in Oklahoma City or the images of commercial jetliners exploding into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, or students fleeing the campus buildings of Virginia Tech. There is a tremendous danger of being traumatized by media images, since it is very difficult to break free from the powerful emotions that these pictures stir up in the aftermath of a tragedy. A key warning sign is obsessively thinking “I just can’t get the pictures out of my mind!”
Over exposure to harsh media images will lead to a psychological condition commonly referred to as being psychologically “re-traumatized.” This is a dangerous condition, since it makes a person feel “numb” inside, with heightened anxiety and decreased motivation. It is strongly recommended that employees focus on their core business and not spend too much time in the morbid fascination of watching body recovery, police man-hunts or whatever direction a media outlet may take a story. Remember that this isn’t the OJ Trials, and that crisis events aren’t entertainment! It is a goal of terrorists to immobilize a country by making everyone feel afraid and often media images fulfill that goal. Leaders need to know when to turn off the television and take away the newspapers to guide employees or whatever people they are responsible for back to their daily work.
As an aside, remember that most of us do not get paid by our employer to watch TV; we typically are paid to provide quality products and services to our customers and make a profit for the shareholders. Leaders help their teams best by getting them back to work and away from negative media sources.
Q- Should a company have a plan in place to help employees respond during tragedies such as this? Have we learned anything from other horrific events, such as the Virginia Tech shooting, Oklahoma City bombing or Terrorist attacks of 9/11/01?
A- Sadly, the likelihood of future community crisis events, such as mall shooters or terrorist attacks is very real. Therefore every employer or community leader is strongly encouraged to have a strategic plan in place to deal with sudden crisis events. This includes special consideration to have some short term working capital in savings, backing up computer systems often and duplicating all data off-site, having full employee listings with contact and social security numbers kept off site as well, creating a system to “check in” on a total count of employees to quickly determine any casualties in a crisis.
The more a company has protected data, including access to checkbooks, payroll and tax records as well as key information about pending projects or client schedules, the faster a company can be back “on line” and back in business after a crisis.
I once toured the tunnels underneath Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando. Amazingly, there are duplicate parts inventoried for virtually every attraction in the park. These are kept underground near the site of the ride or attraction on the ground level above. The strategy is this- if a hurricane or tornado ripped through the Magic Kingdom, whatever damage could be rapidly repaired, so within days it would look like the disaster never happened. That is the power of positive strategic planning! It allows you to quickly respond to a crisis event and then quickly rebuild after a traumatic event.
The horrific pattern of school, mall, church and workplace shooters reveals that a life-threatening crisis could come at any time. This ‘home-grown terrorists attack’ could come from many different types of shooters, so every company needs a strategic plan of action. One that allows for the protection and safety of every employee or person on property and that can be immediately used in the unlikely event of a sudden traumatic event. Remember- your office could be destroyed by fire, flood, tornado, hurricane, or vandalism. Each of these events are much more likely to occur than a terrorist attack or shooter’s bullet. Preparation for a crisis, removes much of the fear and anxiety of leading your company in difficult times. To apply the wisdom from the American philosopher Benjamin Franklin, “better to be safe than sorry.”
Q- As the aftermath unfolds, is it likely that stress caused by the tragedy will produce troubling behaviors in the workplace, such as outbursts of anger or even violence? Should managers be on the alert for this possibility?
A- Yes, Unresolved stress and trauma build up into serious emotional problems if there is not some type of intervention. Managers need to be asking direct questions, focusing on the potential serious and life-threatening behaviors that are associated with this level of grief when stuffed inside. Managers should actively be on the lookout for symptoms of “out of control” stuffed emotions, especially anxiety, panic, rage, mental confusion, or self-destructive patterns including alcoholism, drug usage or domestic violence.
Q- Is it important that a manager be well-versed on what sort of counseling help their company may provide through EAP’s (employee assistance programs) or corporate chaplains? Or is it enough to simply know that these supportive counseling programs exist?
A- Best for managers to already know about EAP, (Employee Assistance Programs), Corporate Chaplains, local hotline numbers and any other special programs or counseling services offered through the company. A few minutes of preparation about the options to help employees can make for a much better referral, which leads to more successful results and an employee who will better be able to rapidly “plug” back into their place on the corporate team on the other side of the crisis.
Q- Some types of critical incidents involving terrorism or crime often create finger pointing and suspicion about who the culprits might be. Given that the media can draw attention toward various cultures or populations which can bring out a lot of anger in employees, how can a manager wisely respond to protect the value of acceptance and diversity in the workplace?
A- Normal stages of grief include Shock-Denial-Anger-Guilt-Grief and ultimately to resolution, however, the anger stage can be quite dangerous. It is possible that an employee could totally lose sight of rational thinking and lean toward an impulsive rage filled response against certain cultures or people groups. Leadership should plainly state that there should never be any inappropriate discussions about retaliation directed toward other staff who are different than they are. Strong emphasis on the importance of workplace diversity is more important than ever to prevent future problems of impulsive charged conflicts driven by difference in race, gender or religion. Remember that it is Federal Law to protect the rights of every person in your company, or under your leadership, so if you are in doubt about how to respond to specific situations of rage or resentment between employees you should quickly contact your legal counsel for specific guidance.
Q- Should crisis management programs be in place long before a critical incident occurs?
A- Better late than never is the recommended plan for managers and leaders. Any attempts to provide for a crisis management plan is a good place to start, so if you don’t already have a crisis management plan in place, then think about including the following factors now to protect your team in the days to come:
– Chain of command for business decisions and a spokesperson for dealing with the media
– Phone lists of key employees (cell-pager-email-text-home), to quickly find and notify your team if the crisis occurs over a weekend or holiday
– Staffing coverage for workers attending to their loved ones who may have been affected by the crisis
– Extra insurance protection, including disability insurance for most workers
– Records of schedule, banking, taxes, as well all important information, digital photos of your place of business to show inventory and property before a disaster as well as insurance claim information, (all of which should be backed up often and a copy kept off site as an extra layer of protection of these valuable records)
– Strategic disaster planning would include thinking of alternative office locations to use as a temporary location, or professional associations that may offer assistance to get your company back in business faster
– Phone lists of key customers and suppliers are among the vital records that a proactive manager will keep stored in different locations to be accessed in the unlikely event of a tragedy
The challenge of conducting business during a major crisis will test your leadership skills. If you begin now to collect data and resources for the inevitable next crisis event you will be better equipped to handle it with strength.
Planning ahead will prevent substantial panic in the future, as well as allow for your company to successfully stay in business serving your customers during any situation. Using these guidelines now will empower you to lead your company through any crisis or traumatic event in the future. Crisis events are part of life and will come again- that’s why leaders will use these strategies to grow stronger in spite of any stressful event that may come their way.
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