When devastating events happen, media coverage of these events often includes a short, ambiguous phrase tucked at the end of the news article: “…and counselors were on site.”
This short phrase may spark a myriad of images, but packs in one of the most important parts of the story that often goes untold – about the psychological first responders aiding in the recovery and the healing of those affected by the event.
In speaking with Jeff Gorter, VP of Crisis Response Clinical Services at R3 Continuum, I learned more about what exactly being a counselor on site means. With years of experience responding to disruptive events affecting workplaces, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Jeff Gorter has been the “counselor on site” more times than he can probably count.
Gorter describes his line of work as differing from that of typical therapists, in that a crisis counselor’s role is to serve as “the EMT of psychological first aid.” They are on site for a specific period of time, in order to serve a specific need. The counselor’s job is to stabilize the workgroup, help them access their own resilience, and direct impacted individuals who need additional help to the next level of psychological care—much like an EMT directs a physically hurt or wounded person to the hospital or emergency room when triaging care.
Gorter says that the goal of his job when he responds to an event is to accomplish three things: validate, ventilate, and educate.
First, he validates the person’s pain or trauma, by acknowledging that it is real and normal. We tend to be our own harshest critics, and it is common to misinterpret the wide range of emotional reactions as an indication of a personal failing, as if we are somehow “doing it wrong” or aren’t strong enough. By recognizing these emotions as understandable and even expected responses, it defuses self-blame and recrimination.
Second, he allows that person a safe space to “ventilate,” or to voice their feelings freely. Just like physical wounds need air to heal, so do psychological. By sharing one’s experience and hearing others share theirs, employees can tap into the natural strength of the group and feel less alone.
Lastly, he educates the person on how they may feel and what they might experience emotionally following a disruptive or traumatic event. He helps the person correctly identify why they are feeling a certain way, so that they can process their emotions and understand that they are a natural response to trauma. More importantly, a counselor can help the person determine the “next right step” in their personal coping strategy and give them tips on how to care for themselves.
Having counselors on site is critical, and it’s equally critical that employers have a plan of action to enable this type of first response in the event of disruption that affects their employees.
From an employer standpoint, there are a few things to consider.
Employers have a legal and ethical responsibility to protect employees
While having behavioral health support available for employees immediately following a disruptive event is simply the right thing to do, it is also significant for organizations to provide support from a legal standpoint.
Under OSHA regulations, employers are legally obligated to do everything in their power to keep their employees safe – both before an event and after. It is easy to think of safety within physical considerations of a workplace, but it is also necessary to consider psychological safety. By providing specially trained counselors to their workforce, employers can offer a tangible and appropriate resource that enhances that safety – thereby taking an important and legally defensible action.
In the wake of trauma, safety is one of the 5 essential elements that someone must feel in order to begin their road to emotional recovery. If an event occurs that harms a person’s feeling of safety, an employer must take responsibility for restoring the sense of safety for that individual the best that they can.
If not? Rest assured that employees will hold their employers accountable, through attrition, poor morale, or legal action.
Employers have an opportunity to protect and retain their valuable workforce
It is also important for employers to consider the human impact of not having behavioral health support onsite following a disruptive event.
Emerging work generations, including millennials and Gen Z, are different from previous generations in how they approach their choice of employer and what they seek from a workplace.
What makes these generations unique is their desire to work for an organization that aligns with their personal and ethical values. Instead of being concerned with doing whatever it takes to please an employer, employees are asking, “Why should I care about them? Do they care about me?”
The new work generation is no longer content to stay at workplaces that do not provide their employees with the proper support, protection, and safety measures needed for them to thrive and maintain a healthy resilience. They understand that they have the power to leave and find a better place of work.
The reality is, employees will talk about the event whether support is there or not.
However, in the absence of clear communication, support, and real information from their leaders, they are likely to insert their own negative narrative, judge their management team’s handling of the aftermath poorly—and potentially leave the company.
When an organization is proactive in taking corporate responsibility and providing support following a disruptive event, the dynamic between employer and employee changes immediately. By showing that they care and providing behavioral health support onsite, an employer can remove the feeling that they are the villain in the situation—effectively defusing the adversarial element. Therefore, employees are less likely to blame their employer for the incident and think of them as the enemy.
Ultimately, by doing the right thing and providing counselors on site, organizations are protecting both their people and their business.
“Counselors were on site” may be a footnote of the news article and not the headline, but this phrase is a critical part of both an organization’s and employee’s story that needs to be included in crisis preparedness plans. Knowing the key role that behavioral health first responders have in the aftermath of disruption is vital.