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Mastering Crisis Control: Top 5 Strategies for Legal Managers Facing Workplace Trauma

Legal managers may be experts in their area of law, but when a traumatic event impacts their workplace — such as a mass layoff, the death of a colleague or an act of workplace violence ― there often is no playbook to work from.
George L. Vergolias, PsyD, CTM

Balancing employee care during a delicate and sensitive transition or event on top of other work responsibilities can feel overwhelming to even the most seasoned professional. However, by building a proactive strategy that considers five key steps, legal leaders can navigate a traumatic time with compassion, insight and efficiency.

1. Act Immediately 

When a traumatic event occurs, it can often feel like the best course of action is a wait-and-see approach. But years of trauma research indicates that the first three to seven days are crucial for people to begin adjusting to the traumatic event and shaping positive psychological habits that build resilience. Immediate support for employees is crucial — but don’t stop there. It’s important to provide a layer of assistance that extends all the way to those directly affected, including employees, clients or their families.

Disruptive event management (DEM) services are an important component of this immediate response during the first week following the event. Additionally, offering counseling services, arranging for medical assistance as needed, and taking steps to ensure employee safety should also be considered in the early days following the event.

2. Open the Lines of Communication

In response to high stress situations, humans tend to seek out information that restores a sense of control or assigns meaning to a certain event. When that information is absent, we fill in the resulting gap with a negative and dramatized version of what happened. This is our evolutionary attempt to prepare for the worst, yet if this fear response remains active for too long it can create a distorted and dysfunctional pattern of thoughts and emotions.

It’s vitally important for leaders to step up in these high stress situations and communicate honestly and openly with all stakeholders about the events that have occurred, while maintaining and respecting strict privacy and confidentiality. Initiating a dialogue to ensure employees know the facts about what happened and what support is available to them can provide much-needed context and understanding. Be willing to have these tough conversations — as difficult as they may feel, it creates authenticity during a time of chaos and confusion for all involved.

3. Consider the Legal Implications

In my many years of consulting, I’ve regularly observed that organizations can have unintentional blind spots when it comes to the legal risks of a traumatic event. With the whirlwind that can often take place following one of these events, it can simply be a business reality.

“In response to high stress situations, humans tend to seek out information that restores a sense of control or assigns meaning to a certain event. When that information is absent, we fill in the resulting gap with a negative and dramatized version of what happened.”

Legal leaders should understand and assess the potential legal liabilities or obligations the firm may have, take appropriate steps to mitigate risks, and address any issues that may arise down the line. Sometimes this even means partnering or consulting with other legal advisors to hear a different point of view and better identify vulnerabilities.

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4. Move Forward with Employee Wellness

As important as it is to step up employee support immediately following a traumatic event, it’s just as important to continue to create a supportive environment moving forward. Often, employees can “get back to work” surprisingly quickly post-event, but then falter weeks or even months later as they try to sustain their previous level of performance. In essence, their emotional stamina begins to run out.

By understanding that employees move at their own pace, legal managers can build and implement a permanent mental wellness program with resources available year-round, prioritizing holistic employee health and fostering a supportive and nurturing workplace culture.

5. Ensure Support Is Available How and When Employees Need It

Continue to promote the resources available to employees and ensure they know what’s available to them, and when. For employees with demanding personal and professional schedules, think of ways you can incorporate well-being tools into a program with availability outside of the traditional 9-to-5, and if possible, look to build flexibility into their work life. That could mean encouraging them to take their allocated paid time off or be able to work on their own time, in-office, hybrid or virtually.

Beyond flexibility, develop a comprehensive plan for providing continued support to employees, such as access to employee assistance program (EAP) support, access to tailored counseling services, training on coping strategies and periodic check-ins to assess well-being as needed.

Nobody wants to think of having a traumatic event in the workplace, but having a roadmap to follow when one does occur will go a long way toward easing your burden as legal managers. With these strategies in place, your firm will be prepared, adaptable and responsive when disruption strikes today and into the future.