SUMMARY: A leader's response in time of distress can have an impact on the workplace and employees. Thoughtful action and preventive measures can help facilitate the best possible response while reducing stress for everyone involved.

The information provided here is a guide only. Emergency response measures are recommended in times of crisis. Beyond the crisis, employees may be distressed in the workplace for any reason including:

  • Threats to the premises or individuals.
  • Conflict in the workplace that may have included violence, harassment or bullying.
  • Workplace disruption related to addiction or substance abuse.
  • Business-related issues including hostile takeovers, closures, bankruptcy, etc.

Some people may need urgent emergency help if they are at risk of hurting themselves or others. Coping with Mental Health Crises and Emergencies has been provided courtesy of Canadian Mental Health Association, BC.

Additional information is also available in Addiction Response, Grief Response, Mental Health First Aid and Suicide Response.

Leadership in times of distress in the workplace

  • Be present. Be calm. It's very important to be visible.
  • Do not put yourself at risk.
  • Tell employees what you do know.
  • Tell them what you don't know. Share what you are doing to find out.
  • Share what you are doing about the situation.
  • Tell employees how to take care of themselves.
  • Assure people you are on top of the situation.

Prevention and Preparation

Create a response resource list

  • Prepare a comprehensive list of contacts and resources for specific critical situations such as violence, suicide, accidents involving hazardous materials, etc.
  • Include all phone numbers, e-mail addresses and work schedules (opening hours, days off, and specific contact person, if any).
  • For a mental health-related crisis, include the contact information for the mental health crisis response team in your area. This team is often located in a hospital psychiatric department.
    • The police should be called when any individual may present a danger to him/herself or others.
    • A mental health crisis response team may be able to provide a less threatening form of intervention if no danger exists.
    • Create your own Mental Health Resource List using this template.
  • Distribute a detailed list of company personnel to be contacted in case of emergency to appropriate services such as fire and police. Ensure all employee files include emergency contact information.
  • Make sure a copy of this information is securely stored in an offsite location and is accessible to key personnel.

Educate employees about what to do in a crisis

  • Engage employees in discussions about the types of potential crises that could occur in your workplace. Help them learn how to understand and plan for their own emotional response in a psychologically safe way.
  • Prepare and distribute a response plan for critical situations to every employee.
  • Include a list of crisis response phone numbers such as distress hotlines, poison control, etc.
  • Distress hotline numbers should be posted in workplace washrooms or other private spaces available to employees to allow for easy access by employees in crisis.
  • Conduct detailed facility tours that show all potential entry and exit points, the location of fire extinguishers and basic medical supplies. Ensure that employees know how to operate them.
    • Check with your local municipality to get blueprints of all locations that show fire exits, electrical sources, window locations, all entry and exit points, parking lots, etc. Your fire department may also be able to provide more information about what should be included. Share details with your workplace health and safety leaders or representatives.
  • Do annual dry runs for each common crisis response and, if possible, station employees in different parts of the facility for each dry run.
  • Emphasize that employees are not required to intervene if they are putting themselves at risk.
  • Provide training about managing stress in extreme situations.

Business related issues and crisis

While not requiring emergency response, some workplace situations such as hostile business takeovers or bankruptcies can cause high levels of distress for both leaders and employees.

In these situations steps should be taken to support the psychological health and safety of everyone in the workplace. This can include some of the strategies listed above as well as those provided in Helping Employees Managing Change and Managing Emotions.

A Psychological Health and Safety Management System can help organizations consider the impact of workplace stressors as well as processes, policies and interactions on the psychological health and safety of all employees.