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Special Report on Talent Management: A Resilient Bunch

Some employers, such as humanitarian organization World Vision, above, provide support and resiliency training to workers whose job is dealing with crisis situations.

November 11, 2011

As an aid worker for an international relief organization in Chad in the 1980s, Francois de la Roche and his colleagues would ocworldcasionally come across a campsite where people had died of starvation. They would stop and bury the bodies, then move on. "You were expected to tough it out," de la Roche recalls, but "those things stay with you."

It's a much different story today, says de la Roche, who recently returned to Washington, D.C., after serving as chief of party in Afghanistan for Chemonics International, an international development consultancy. Now, "times have changed, and for the better," de la Roche says. "The leadership is sensitized to see you have help."

It isn't only Chemonics that has become more sensitive to its employees' emotional needs. Many companies and organizations that operate in very pressured situations or are rocked by crisis are trying to provide their staffs with support and resiliency training. They hope to develop hardier employees and a stronger organization that can grow and thrive, even when beset by major challenges or extremely stressful events.

Chemonics, for example, has teamed up with the KonTerra Group to provide emotional assistance and resiliency training for staff members who work in crisis situations or experience a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster.

KonTerra Group was created 4½ years ago to help organizations involved in international relief and development efforts. To increase resiliency, KonTerra might train staff members in techniques such as stress management before they head into a new situation, offer wellness counseling while they're overseas, provide on-site support if they're involved in a crisis or natural disaster, hold debriefings when they return home, or offer more counseling or other services if they need help down the road.

For resiliency efforts to take root and thrive, staff must "have the support of an organization's leadership who will be advocates for resilience and see it as a strategic element for their organization," says Rick Augsburger, KonTerra's managing director.

By helping employees learn to rebound from traumatic and stressful events, both the organization and the workers can benefit, he adds. "We're seeing people stay in their positions longer."

Michael Hegenauer, global director for staff care with the international humanitarian organization World Vision International, has seen firsthand the evolution in organizations' attitudes toward offering support for employees serving in tense situations. As an aid worker at the Thai-Cambodian border in the early 1980s, he noticed that some people thought aid workers were weak if they wanted to discuss something traumatic they had witnessed.

By the late 1980s, organizations began to realize they were ethically obliged to provide assistance. By the mid-1990s, studies showed the toll such situations could take on employees. And by the 2000s, organizations understood "you're legally remiss if you don't do something," Hegenauer says.

Augsburger says interest in and concern about supporting employees spiked after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "Risk took on a higher profile," and organizations began to realize "they needed to support their workforce, given the stress and risk staffs work under." The extreme natural disasters in recent years, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Japan earthquake, also have ratcheted up interest in helping employees cope and making them more resilient.

While Chemonics already had some support systems in place, it ramped up its offerings after the earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010. The earthquake affected not only the expatriates working in Haiti, but also Chemonics' many local employees. All of the employees survived, but "our staff lost loved ones. Many of them lost everything," says Agnieszka Zieminska-Yank, senior vice president of human resources.

Chemonics sent in counselors from KonTerra, including some who spoke French and Creole, to offer assistance to employees.

Matthew Henkes, currently operations manager at Chemonics, was in Haiti on a short-term assignment when the earthquake struck. Although he's a California native, the Haitian quake "was really like nothing I'd ever experienced." As mirrors shattered and walls cracked, Henkes fled his hotel room. For hours he heard "people screaming—out of pain and loss of loved ones."

He spent the night of the earthquake sleeping on the hotel tennis courts, then stayed the following two nights at the home of a Chemonics staff member who lived in a part of Port-au-Prince that hadn't been as hard hit, before being evacuated to Washington. There, a trauma counselor held a debriefing with those who had been evacuated, letting them tell their tales. Henkes says he learned, "the emotions I'm feeling are OK to feel." Longer-term counseling also was offered to the evacuees.

That was the first time Chemonics' employees had gone through such a traumatic incident. In response, the company introduced a policy giving staff members who had experienced a major crisis five paid days off work. "After a traumatic incident, it's likely they just want to be with their family," Zieminska-Yank says.

That flies in the face of the typical response of aid and development workers who think, "I can't leave. I have all this work to do," she says. But it's crucial that employees take time for themselves to rest and recover so they can be effective going forward.

While the employees of many organizations experience an occasional crisis, others work under conditions of unmitigated stress. For example, Chemonics' de la Roche spent almost a year in Afghanistan, where the organization's two compounds often came under attack. "It was quite intense. It all starts to add up after a while," he says.

Chemonics has given employees in Afghanistan stress management and resiliency training, set up a gym in each compound, organized special dinners, and sent movies and games to help workers relax, Zieminska-Yank says.

Washington-based employees who work with the staff in Afghanistan also received resiliency training. "They experience a lot of vicarious stress and trauma," Zieminska-Yank says.

For World Vision, the defining moment for offering extra support to employees in a crisis came with the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, which struck Indonesia and neighboring countries. "It was so big, so overwhelming," Hegenauer says. "A lot of our staff was part of it. They were survivors. They had to fight for their lives and their families' lives."

World Vision, based in Federal Way, Washington, has trained about 160 of its employees to offer peer-to-peer support when any of their 40,000 colleagues around the world face an emergency. Receiving support from fellow employees makes a huge difference, Hegenauer says. "It really is a band of brothers. They view the world differently. If you're not part of the group, they're not going to listen to you."

But peer-to-peer counseling can be a challenge because of the many countries in which World Vision operates, Hegenauer says. An employee from a Western culture may have a far different view of counseling and mental health issues than one from Africa or Asia. In some cultures mental health counseling still carries a stigma.

Souleymane Henikoye, human resources director for World Vision in Rwanda, received training to become a peer-to-peer counselor and now applies what he has learned about stress management to his daily job. For example, prior to the training he would drink tea and coffee to get him through the day. Now he relies on water, which boosts his energy level, and he exercises regularly to ward off stress.

Peer-to-peer training also helped him learn how to listen to colleagues in the midst of a crisis and respond to them most effectively. "By listening to people you can sometimes do triage," Henikoye says. In some cases, the current stress an individual is experiencing is exacerbated by "issues in the past they have not dealt with."

Henikoye put his skills to the test following the Haitian earthquake. Employees discussed in group sessions how the quake affected them, and they learned stress management techniques. He later did one-on-one sessions with staff members.

Unlike some organizations, Grand Circle Travel of Boston has been working for years to hone its staff members' ability to care for themselves and their clientele in the midst of a crisis. Since 1995, the company has had to deal with more than 350 crises and challenges, from a bus accident in Botswana to the Iceland volcano eruptions to the unrest in Egypt this year, public relations director Priscilla O'Reilly says.

"International travel is wildly unpredictable," says Andy Snider, Grand Circle's managing director. So, the company strives to train its staff to think on their feet and "make the best decisions in a crisis." Managers and leading tour guides come to the United States at least once a year for leadership training at a 400-acre Outward Bound-style compound in Kensington, New Hampshire. They might take part in a competition on a high ropes course a or build a raft to cross a river. By putting them in "risky situations, you get people in touch with their fears, desires, strengths and weaknesses," Snider says.

The overarching goal is to encourage employees to step up and take action in times of crisis or challenge, rather than say it's not their responsibility. "It's OK to make a mistake," Snider says, "as long as they are trying to do what's right."

Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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