What Hurricanes, Emergency Rooms and the Red Cross Taught Me About Return-to-Office Strategy

A Category 5 hurricane changed my life.

I wasn’t always a business professional. In graduate school, I studied to be a psychotherapist. In my second year of school, I took a class called Crisis Counseling and, through completion of the course, I became certified in Red Cross mental health disaster relief. My professor had recently returned from New Orleans, where he spent months on the front lines of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. He witnessed the destruction of homes, abandoned grocery stores, massive flooding, and what happens when basic necessities like food, water and shelter are ripped away from individuals — many of whom were already in vulnerable positions.

When talking about his experience, I never forgot what my professor said to the class. “You can’t even begin to support someone through a mental health crisis until their basic needs are met,” he explained. In his work with hurricane victims, he would start every conversation by first offering a warm blanket, a bottle of water, and something to eat. Perched on the edge of my seat during every lecture, the course was profound for me, so much so that my first job after graduate school was as a clinician in an emergency room. Like my professor, I managed mental and physical crises for patients on a daily basis. While I eventually left a career in mental health in pursuit of entrepreneurial endeavors, the lessons I learned have stayed by my side, especially when disaster strikes.

Lessons from Crisis Management for Mental Health in the Workplace

Today, we face a different kind of disaster. Unlike a hurricane barreling through in a matter of days, COVID-19 continues to leave its mark. The uncertainty and ambiguity of its ebb and flow have left a significant proportion of the population in a mental health crisis. So how can we, as business leaders, help our employees return to the office safely and confidently when new threats of COVID-19 variants and waves continue to be part of the pandemic’s aftermath? I suggest taking a page from crisis management.

1. Adopt a Safety-First Mentality

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers have obligations to protect their employees from exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. So before pushing play on your return-to-office strategy, business leaders need to first reimagine the office space so that it feels and operates in a safe manner to employees. Think of the office as the warm blanket that my professor offered to the hurricane victims. Office furniture rearrangement, new barriers, and different facility entry and exit requirements can give employees more physical space and room to breathe. Many organizations are also considering staggered work hours so that fewer people are in the office at the same time. Gathering places, such as break rooms and cafeterias may be closed, have new occupancy limits, or may be moved to larger spaces. For office spaces with open floor plans, sectioning off dedicated private spaces for employees to escape the crowd and practice deep breathing could make all the difference for those with anxiety. You may also want to consider asking your employees to sign-in on the days they’re in the office so you can contract-trace in the event of an outbreak.

2. Listen to Your Most Vulnerable Employees

New York Times best-selling author Iyanla Vanzant said: “The way to achieve your own success is to be willing to help somebody else first.” By that same logic, the way to achieve organizational success is to put your workforce first.

When managing a crisis, the very first step is triage to identify and prioritize the most at-risk individuals. The same holds true for returning to the office. To be a truly inclusive organization, your return-to-office policies should abandon ‘majority rules’ thinking and instead center around the needs of your most vulnerable employees. Why? Picture the game Jenga. The less privilege individuals hold across their social identities (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, level of education, socio-economic status) the more easily their lives can crumble when disaster strikes. The employees who are lucky to have enough reinforcements in place to weather the storm are much less likely to need alternative policies and additional employer support. By focusing too much on the majority and not on the marginalized, you may put a plan in place that drives away the very employees who need you most. A return-to-office strategy is the perfect opportunity for the C-suite to give their most vulnerable employees a voice to communicate what they need in order to succeed in a COVID-19 and post-COVID work atmosphere.

3. Don’t Assume the End of COVID Will Be the End of Corporate Caregiving

The expected long-term physical and mental health impacts of COVID-19 will reverberate for years. The lack of preventative care and in-person appointments with physicians and therapists over the last year-plus have created a snowball effect with untreated mental and physical health conditions. And to make matters even more complicated, everyone responds to crises differently. Anxiety, grief, trauma — each member of the workforce will return to the office with unhealed wounds that may look different from their team members’. While one individual may panic at the thought of working indoors in a public setting, another may be spending unplanned hours with a child who has fallen behind this year academically, socially and emotionally. As such, each employee will require different levels of employer support and flexibility to be successful both in and outside of the office. And unlike years past, employees now expect their employers to rise to the challenge. Like many other executives in your shoes, consider diversifying your well-being initiatives and family benefits portfolio as part of your return-to-office strategy, giving extra attention to those that specialize in managing and preventing crises.

A return-to-office strategy is so much more than changing policies and moving furniture. It requires a concerted effort to get to know the unique needs of your workforce — to understand their willingness to be in-person, what new challenges they face today in their personal lives, and what supports they need to be successful in an office setting. Like a hurricane that leaves a path of destruction, COVID-19 has left employers with quite a mess. But if we’re thoughtful and we lead with compassion, we can rebuild a vibrant workplace that acknowledges the scar tissue of the pandemic, yet emboldens us to move forward.