Healthcare organizations are not immune to the impact of a crisis. Being prepared to handle a crisis effectively is the duty of anyone working in management.
The tragic and devastating events that occurred in New York City and Washington on September 11 sent a wake-up call throughout our nation. Every industry, especially health care, heard a loud and clear message: “No longer business as usual.”
It remains to be seen what our nation’s response will be politically or militarily. But what is certain is that hospitals and other healthcare organizations—like all companies across the land—need to prepare for any “worst case scenario” that might occur on their work premises.
What is the best way for human resources personnel and managers to prepare their employees for a crisis? Every situation is different, certainly, but a few helpful guidelines pertaining to crisis management should be appropriately considered.
One: Identify the crisis.
By definition, a crisis is a serious, even tragic, event or series of events that in some way endangers the welfare of an organization and the individuals who are associated with it. Even if there is some degree of warning, it is the sudden and unexpected nature of the event that makes it most unsettling to those who have to deal with it with urgency and resolve.
When a crisis occurs, company representatives need to quickly identify how the business and its employees are threatened. Is there immediate and direct threat to personal life and well-being of those working on the premises? Is there related psychological anxiety stemming from the fact that the company is in close proximity to some other business or entity that has experienced some sort of devastation? Likewise, is there any additional threat associated with employees who choose to exit the place of business to secure their own safety?
Time is of the essence in making these determinations. To prevent the crisis from spinning out of control, those in charge must have a plan of action and communicate it clearly to everyone who feels the effects of the crisis.
Two: Communicate with employees.
Fear. Panic. Confusion. The emotions experienced during a crisis feed on themselves. When people don’t know what they should do, they end up doing something they perhaps shouldn’t do. That only compounds the problem.
When the impact of crisis is first felt, it’s crucial for managers to take charge with a sense of authority and resolve in order to guide those under their charge through the difficult circumstances. This begins with clear communication based on accurate information.
Employees need to know—without any “spin”—what has happened, what the implications are for their personal well-being, and how they can best contribute to their own safety and welfare. Above all, employees look to management for ample reassurance that the company has carefully assessed the situation and can offer solutions to the problem at hand.
Three: Have a contingency plan.
The day-to-day operations of hospitals or healthcare organizations are not the same as military planning in the Pentagon, obviously. That fact notwithstanding, it’s imperative for companies of any size and description to have a contingency plan for any possible crisis that might occur.
Such a plan should account for disasters of nature: hurricane, tornado, earthquake, and lightning strikes. An aftermath of such disasters could be lengthy loss of utility power, interruption of services related to sustaining life, imperiling of personal safety of personnel working at the facility, and loss of revenue if business operations are dramatically curtailed for a long time.
Considering what occurred on September 11, a contingency plan should also prepare for any sort of terrorist attack that might hit any American city and affect the lives of thousands of its inhabitants.
Effective planning should specify procedures that can be quickly enacted if a crisis related to terrorism occurs. A crisis management plan should focus on:
--preservation of life and personal safety
--suitable evacuation procedures
--maintaining internal and external communication
--transporting employees to a safer environment
--continuation of business operations (as much as possible)
--providing mental health care following the crisis.
In devising such a plan, it’s important to designate appropriate company personnel to spearhead the implementation of each part of the plan. In times of emergency or crisis, having clearly delineated lines of authority helps to minimize confusion and uncertainty regarding appropriate action.
Four: Educate employees.
The world of sports teaches a good lesson regarding any potential workplace crisis: The best offense is always a good defense.
Long before any crisis occurs, it’s important that managers educate employees on matters related to their personal safety and welfare, and that of co-workers and others who use the services of organization (clients, customers, patients).
One form of education is notifying employees that the company actually has a crisis management plan to handle any sort of natural disaster or terrorist attack that might occur. It’s not necessary to detail every aspect of the plan. However, assuring employees that the company is prepared to handle any critical situation will alleviate much of the stress that employees feel when they reflect on tragic events that grab headline news.
Another form of education is mental preparation for any possible scenario that might befall the company. In this connection, procedures like an old-fashioned “fire drill” might be quite appropriate. Without doubt, planning that includes emergency evacuation reduces employees’ fear and panic if and when that needs to take place.
Five: Set the right example.
Human nature being what it is, employees follow the lead of their superiors in regard to appropriate workplace behavior.
Given the climate of no longer business as usual, managers are well advised to set a good example of being alert to their surroundings, taking extra precautions when dealing with the public at large, and acting responsibly if any sort of general or specific threat is communicated
Hopefully, the events witnessed on September 11 will never reoccur in our lifetime. Even so, other kinds of crises and emergencies are within the realm of possibility. As they say, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Word to the wise.
Calvin Bruce serves as Contributing Editor to MedCAREERS.