Recognizing and responding to a person in crisis

mental health problems at work 556x400 depressionWe all know the importance of mental health and how prominent this issue has become in the workplace. We likewise know that managers are often the ones on the front lines of these conversations. We’ve published numerous articles on the importance of keeping communication open with employees, ways to reduce stress, and helping employees do their best work every day with peace of mind. But how do you deal with staff members facing a crisis in the workplace? What should you watch out for, who and what are your go-to resources and how can you help your employees help themselves when facing personal crises that they carry with them into the office?

Recognizing a person in crisis

A person in crisis may exhibit any of the following warning signs and more:

  • Abrupt changes in personality or “normal” behavior (i.e., out-of-character conduct)
  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feelings of sadness, depression or lack of motivation
  • Ongoing anger, hostile or aggressive behavior towards peers, supervisors, customers or the organization as a whole
  • Overreaction or defensiveness to even the slightest corrective feedback
  • Withdrawal from social situations and self-imposed isolation
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable highs or feelings of euphoria and uncontrollable lows, including crying
  • Confused thinking or difficulty concentrating
  • A “timeclock mentality” where the individual simply goes through the motions of doing work without engaging with others or ensuring completion of tasks or assignments
  • Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomachaches and vague, ongoing “aches and pains”)

These mini-workplace crises may appear to “come out of nowhere” and can throw you and your team members into a reactive state, especially if these reactions go on for longer periods.

Signs of escalation

Further, employees in crisis mode tend to reveal the following progressive indicators:

  • Early warning signs of mild irritation
  • Irritation develops into anger, accusations, and blaming
  • Issues multiply: One problem turns into several
  • Generalizations: Issues become clouded so nothing is ever right and everything feels wrong (i.e., generalized, exaggerated language tends to come into play using terms like “always” and “never”)
  • Goals shift: The goal changes from resolving a conflict to winning an argument
  • Impasse: A refusal to cooperate or communicate takes hold

When left unaddressed, these errant behaviors can exacerbate a workplace crisis. How you address the matter is important. However, sweeping the matter under the rug and turning a blind eye is not fair to the individual or to the rest of the team.

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Remember again, however, that leadership is a team sport. When you feel a natural concern about someone’s behavior or personal challenges, escalate the matter to your manager and to human resources (if your organization has an HR department) for guidance and to align the leadership team around your go-forward plan. After all, you’re not expected to read minds, look into people’s hearts, or understand the difference between a minor or major crisis in a particular situation. Leadership team interventions work best when well-coordinated and aligned.

Responding to a person in crisis

When it comes to intervening when workers are experiencing a crisis of some sort, pay attention to the early warning signs of escalation and address them quickly. The sooner the person gets help, the better. Remember that tense situations can be defused with active listening and empathy. And again, if situations escalate beyond your control, get immediate help. Under all circumstances, engage in practices that help the individual in the situation feel heard and respected.

  1. Keep your voice calm and talk slowly.
  2. Listen to the person with your heart and your eyes in addition to your ears.
  3. Express support and concern. Human connection and understanding go a long way when people fall into crisis mode.
  4. Ask how you can help. Deep breathing enhances oxygenation and drinking water can help calm nerves.
  5. Encourage the person to seek treatment or contact their health professional, if appropriate. Remind them of your organization’s employee assistance program (EAP) or other free, confidential resources that may be available.
  6. Give the person space. Calmness and peace of mind need to be restored as quickly as possible, but not at the expense of the individual’s natural timing.

When stress is equal to an individual’s coping resources, a healthy balance will be maintained. When anxiety exceeds an individual’s coping resources, a crisis may ensue. Helping your team members keep stress levels manageable and making coping resources readily available will help everyone maintain that healthy balance. And no, you don’t need to be a psychologist to know when to intervene. But always be the type of boss you’d like to have yourself: one who’s concerned about staff well-being, one who will make it safe for staffers to make themselves healthily “vulnerable” when they need a guiding hand and one willing to help others when they’re generally feeling down.

Finally, when in doubt, escalate. Use your EAP resources wisely so you don’t inadvertently end up sharing non-work-related advice with employees who may be challenged by factors or feelings beyond their control (i.e., don’t play psychiatrist or try to self-diagnose their current issues). Ensure that your manager and human resources representative are partnering with and guiding you, and feel free to refer the individual their way for further support. Enlightened leadership is selfless leadership that knows its limits. Responding carefully and purposefully means that you care. Escalating when matters exceed your ability to help demonstrates wisdom and compassion.

A special note of caution

Note that this article does not attempt to address formal “behavioral health crises,” which can escalate to behavioral health emergencies when a person makes a threat of violence. This can involve the threat of suicide or harm to others. Behavioral health emergencies are life-threatening situations (e.g., suicide attempts, psychosis/hallucinations, threats to kill oneself or others, or loss of consciousness due to alcohol or drugs), which go beyond the scope of this article.

In such cases, contact your manager and human resources representative immediately, reach out to your employee assistance program provider for situation-specific guidance and/or call 911 for help. Likewise, dial 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, the new national suicide prevention network comprising more than 160 crisis centers that provide 24/7 service via its toll-free hotline. The lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress, as well as crisis resources and best practices for professionals.