Dealing with crises is a hallmark of our work in student affairs. It is also perhaps the most difficult part of our work — both to deal with a crisis in the moment and to prepare for the after-effects it may cause.
I have served as a live-on crisis responder, and now oversee much of the crisis response on my current campus. And while I will never claim to have seen it all, I’ve seen enough to confidently pass some of my learning on to you. There are several steps you can take to prepare, respond, and debrief to help mitigate burnout and trauma among your staff.
1. Develop a response plan
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
When was the last time you reviewed your crisis response manual? Do you even have one? Every staff team that responds to crises should have documentation and a step-by-step guide outlining how to deal with the most common emergencies on campus.
Have your stakeholders look it over. Campus and/or local police, the office of student conduct, your general counsel, counseling center staff, facilities and operations — all of these folks have parts to play in that response so you’ll need to take their input into consideration.
2. Train smartly
Train. Your. Team. Training should happen in layers to first ensure that on-the-ground responders (such as RAs, live-in staff, and front desk workers) understand the immediate actions needed in an emergency.
The next layer involves staff who will field questions in the moment and connect with stakeholders. This group needs to know whom to call when. Should they contact students’ families for any reason? When does the dean of students need to be brought in? Your second layer team should be trained on the answers to these sorts of questions.
Finally, if you have a crisis or behavioral intervention team, its members will need to understand the basic responses so that they can assess next steps and interventions for at-risk students. Go over these processes, running your team through case studies or role-plays to assess how well they think through realistic scenarios. Scenarios might include:
- a student death on campus
- a major facilities emergency, such as the power going out in a residence hall during freezing temperatures
- a shelter in place ordered issued by institution or the city
- an active shooter on campus
3. Stay calm
In the moment, as a crisis is unfolding, don’t panic! Rest assured that you have solid processes and refer back to them. It’s always better to take a moment to review your how-tos than to speed up and make a mistake.
You never want more staff than there are roles to play in an emergency. That can result in confusion, miscommunication, and even literal crowding — all of which is less than helpful, especially in a pandemic. If it’s a major emergency, such as a physical altercation or student death, minimizing the number of responders is especially important to ensure that no one sees anything that can cause them unnecessary trauma.
Utilize any extra folks to clear the scene (telling students “go back inside!”), make timely phone calls (to families, police, health professionals, counseling, or other emergency staff) or to pull student information (such as addresses, emergency contacts, and disability accommodations) for later.
You can also send staff members away on-site if they aren’t needed. Fight or flight is genuine and when you have folks go into fight mode, you need to be sure they are doing what they need to do and not adding to the fray. Seeing something traumatic, triggering, or private can cause the responder lasting trauma or stress, so keep that in mind when delegating tasks and managing your team.
Also, keep in mind that you yourself are a responder. Aim to never cause more damage, even to yourself, than you’ll solve.
4. Debrief, process, support
The trauma of responding to a crisis can impact staff long after the event and lead to major burn-out. In 2019, the World Health Organization declared burnout to be an occupational phenomenon, with symptoms including:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- reduced professional efficacy
And, according to the Mayo Clinic, burnout can lead to:
- excessive stress
- sadness, anger, or irritability
- alcohol or substance misuse
Crisis responders in higher education are some of the most burnt-out professionals, even compared to prison wardens and emergency room nurses. (And I should know; I did a dissertation on it!)
That’s why it’s so vital to debrief and process after the event, bringing in professional counseling services if appropriate. I’ve brought in a campus wellness expert to a staff meeting to lead a meditation exercise and to teach my team about aromatherapy. It was a welcome break for the staff — a way for them to take a breath during a stressful time.
You may want to do a combination of group and individual follow-up, depending on who was involved in the crisis response and how stressful the event was for each teammate.
You should also talk through procedural hiccups, celebrate successes, and check in on everyone’s well-being. You can ask how folks are doing and offer up some resources without prompting, making it as easy as possible for your team to access those offerings.
A resource that my team has especially appreciated as we work remotely is Kudoboard. Its online group cards can be used to give shout-outs, celebrate with birthday greetings, or send condolences.
After a major crisis, sending a virtual card can let folks know you are thinking of them or that you appreciate a particularly fantastic contribution they’ve brought to the team.
Staff responders may also benefit from human resources offerings — such as an employee assistance program to identify a physician or counselor or the ability to flex hours or paid time off to do some yoga, nap, or take a vacation.
Do what you can to encourage that processing time and let your supervisees know that it’s ok to step away for a bit. Consider: Can you take a project on for that team member? Do you have supervisory authority to give them time off or cancel a meeting or three? Figure out how you can assist them and do it!
Student affairs can be a gauntlet, and offering breathing room can make the difference between positive morale and major burnout.
We have a retention problem in the field of student affairs, and burnout is a major cause of that attrition. Genuinely supporting staff and minimizing trauma can help improve the longevity of your staff.
I have the good fortune to have a role that allows me to grant flexibility to my staff who regularly respond to crises. Many of my current and former staff say that they value flex time most. They appreciate getting to take time away, work from home (even pre-pandemic), and have control over their schedules. This autonomy has helped staff feel supported even when things feel chaotic and directly demonstrates care for them as people.
How do you support staff through crises? We’d love to learn from your best practices! Connect with us on Twitter @HelloPresence.