Supporting Staff Through the Ongoing Bushfire Crisis

Supporting Staff Through the Ongoing Bushfire Crisis

All across the country Australians are reeling from the scale of our bushfire crisis. The impact has been unprecedented in terms of lives lost and homes and land destroyed and with more than a billion animals killed, the toll on biodiversity has been significant.

The trauma caused has cast a wide net, especially for those in bushfire threat zones and the realities of this national disaster have been felt across the country and on a daily basis, making it important for business to do what they can to support employees now and moving forward.

The extent of the tragedy will cause many people to experience heightened anxiety levels. The duration and ferocity of the fires, hazardous smoke haze in populated areas and a general feeling of helplessness may worsen underlying stress and anxiety among some staff members.

What the experts say

Trauma of any kind can result in lingering distress not only for direct sufferers, but also those who witness or read about a disaster or tragedy. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), natural disasters and climate-change-induced extreme weather fall into this ‘distress’ category.

In a recent Sydney Morning Herald article Professor Ian Hickie, co-director of the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney, said the impact of bushfires and smoke – combined with the drought – was a “serious mental health issue”.

Organisations like Lifeline experienced a significant spike in calls to its suicide prevention hotline on catastrophic fire days. On other days, its counsellors were also hearing people talk more about how the fires and the smoke affected their mental health.

The emotional toll of this crisis and its impact on the daily lives of all Australians may cause detrimental effects for some employees. Proactive preventative steps may help to minimise the effect on individuals and reduce the overall impact on business.

Here are some ideas on how to support your employees and ramp up existing channels to assist them through this national bushfire disaster and to support planning for our next bushfire season.

Communicate openly and frequently

To lead effectively and help reduce stress, adopt an open door policy. Acknowledge the issues and anxiety caused by the bushfire crisis, and ask your employees what they need at this time.

Compassion and clear communication can foster long-lasting results that benefit individuals and your business. Talk to your team through multiple channels, through team meetings and include one-on-one conversations to understand how they are feeling and what they need.

Listen to employee concerns and be prepared with solutions your workplace can offer.

Promote self-care and lead by example

You’ll be better able to support your team and model resiliency if you acknowledge and manage any stress and anxiety you feel yourself.

Ensure you and your team practice self-care including a good sleep routine, regular exercise and good nutrition. All of these are proven strategies for managing stress and enhancing productivity.

Examples of simple employee wellness initiatives that could be promoted in the workplace:

  • Regular breaks
  • Healthy snacks
  • Free or subsidised fitness membership
  • Access to stress reducing apps
  • Lunchtime classes such as yoga or meditation.

Provide access to counselling services

Whether your employees have been directly impacted by the bushfires or are feeling overwhelmed by the situation, they may need extra support. Be sure to share your employee assistance program details with all your employees. Communicate the process and scope of confidential counselling and support services on offer. Ensure this resource is kept front of mind and is promoted throughout the coming year.

Offer greater flexibility for working hours and leave

Provide support and assistance by offering employees leave if they or their families have been impacted by the fires. Take a proactive role, as some employees may not feel comfortable asking for time off. Flexible working arrangements, such as remote working or reduced hours, may also be useful to some employees, even if just for the short term.

Empower your employees

Give your employees a role in the recovery effort and ask them for their ideas. Providing staff an opportunity to fundraise or volunteer as a team may support a reduction in stress levels by creating a positive focus.

A great example of a profession contributing free assistance to communities ravaged by the bushfire disaster are The Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ), CPA Australia and the Institute of Public Accountants (IPA). Their assistance includes donations of their time and skills by creating a pro bono register for members to volunteer their services.

Even small businesses can pool their skills, share their talents and services to offer some free assistance in their area of expertise.

Take care of customers and your community
Communicating with customers is key especially if your business has been impacted directly by the crisis. Keep them informed on your status and how you’re dealing with it. Acknowledge any uncertainty; be honest, open and accessible in all communications. Also, where possible, reach out and provide support to other businesses you’re associated with as well as your local community.

Monitor and follow-up
Reactions can vary between individuals, so be aware of changes in performance or attendance. It is possible for responses to develop over time and follow-up support may be required for some employees or teams. It’s important to remind staff as often as necessary about the support available in your workplace.

There has been a huge outpouring of support for businesses and communities directly impacted by the disasters but the national recovery effort will be ongoing.

The immense destruction from the bushfires has touched every Australian and business has a role to play in the recovery process. Supporting your employees through compassionate management and providing access to resources has far reaching benefits for your team, your community and your business.

Thanks to Alex Hattingh, whose insights helped write this article.

References and further reading

Beyond Blue, Bushfires and mental health

Help for Australian bushfires affected businesses

Smart Company, What to do if your business is affected by bushfire

Australian Government: Mental Health Support