What to Do in a Crisis: Tips for Employees and Managers

A mental health emergency often catches people off-guard, which is why it’s important companies have a crisis plan in place.

Written by Rachel Unger

What to Do in a Crisis: Tips for Employees and Managers

01 If you’re concerned that you or your coworker is in crisis or nearing one, seek help.

02 Effective intervention can mean the difference between life or death, but the key is to try and prevent situations from escalating to a crisis through increased awareness and advocacy.

03 The ideas outlined here are general suggestions and are not a substitution for professional mental health care or advice.

If you're experiencing an emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to reach a 24/7 crisis center or dial 911 for immediate assistance. If you’re outside of the United States, you can find a local crisis center here.

Your workplace likely has established protocols to ensure safety from fire or other emergencies, but does it have a plan in place for serious mental health crises?

These situations often strike without warning. They’re hard to anticipate. When they happen at work, things get even more complicated.

Mental health experiences vary from person to person, but there are certain behaviors that may indicate a coworker is struggling — especially if they are out of character for that person. 

Someone may be missing work or deadlines, seem unusually withdrawn or be working longer hours to get things done. You may notice changes in behavior or personality, shifts in mood or deteriorating relationships with coworkers. 

These changes can happen suddenly, or they can creep up over time. If you spot these signs in someone you work with, talk to them about it. Mention the changes that you’re noticing. Stick to the facts, don’t pass judgement and ask how you can help. If it feels appropriate, encourage them to seek professional help.

It’s important to note that dealing with a crisis should never be the responsibility of an employee or peer. Companies should have systems and protocols in place. That said, the more aware and supportive we are of those around us, the better. We each play a role in making our workplaces more open, safe and accommodating. 

What is a Mental Health Crisis? How to Support Someone in Need

A mental health crisis is when a person’s emotional or mental state puts them or someone else in danger or prevents them from being able to care for themselves or to function effectively in a community.

What’s a Mental Health Crisis?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines a mental health crisis as a situation when an individual is at risk of harming themselves or others and/or unable to care for themselves or function as a member of the community. Someone can have a mental health crisis even if they follow a treatment plan and are actively working with mental health providers.

Mental health crises can happen when someone is thinking about suicide; experiences a psychotic episode (e.g., hallucinations, delusions); has a panic attack or is in danger of hurting themselves, others or property.

The response to a mental health crisis may vary depending on the situation. You’ll be making tough decisions under pressure. As an employee or a manager, you can play an important role in spotting a coworker who is near or in crisis — and helping connect them with the care they need. 

Get familiar with the different types of crisis care in your area so you know whom to call when the need arises. These resources include hotlines, mobile crisis teams, community crisis clinics and mental health urgent care centers — all good alternatives to police intervention. Research suggests that crisis intervention can reduce hospital admissions by up to 50% and can be more cost-effective than hospitalization. 

How you act in these situations can make a major difference. Remain as calm as possible, listen receptively and do your best to de-escalate the situation — and seek outside assistance if needed. Try to help to make sure your coworker is seen by a health professional as soon as possible, and that the crisis is handled in a way that is least harmful to your coworker. Most importantly, don’t put yourself in danger.

How you act in these situations can make a major difference. Remain as calm as possible, listen receptively and do your best to de-escalate the situation.

How to Help

Dealing with a crisis is not the responsibility of an employee. Companies should have procedures in place for doing so respectfully and with the individual’s wellbeing in mind. That said, if you find yourself concerned about a coworker or friend, start by sizing up the scene. Does this person seem to be a risk to themselves or others? 

Tell a manager or supervisor as soon as possible, and stay with your coworker if you feel safe doing so. Make sure your coworker is involved in decisions about who else should be told. Try to remove any potentially harmful objects from the room if harm is of concern. 

In some cases, a person may already have a crisis plan in place with a therapist or doctor. Consider reaching out to a loved one or licensed professional who could advise. 

If your coworker is in a life-threatening situation — or if no other options are available — call emergency services. Make sure to say that this is a mental health crisis. Be specific about your coworker’s symptoms and note any immediate concerns. Ask for someone who’s trained to respond to mental health emergencies, if available, like a Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) officer. These officers have specialized training and can provide your coworker with the right support, while avoiding unnecessary police involvement or hospitalization. 

Dealing with a crisis is not the responsibility of an employee.

Tips for De-Escalation and Support

Your coworker may act unpredictably while in a mental health crisis. They may have trouble understanding what others are saying or talking about what they’re thinking or feeling. Their behavior can change drastically and abruptly, and they may struggle to voice their needs. 

When you intervene in a mental health crisis, your goal is to help your coworker feel they are safe and in control. The last thing they’ll want to see is someone panicking. Show your support for your coworker by listening empathetically, and ask how they would like to be helped. Give them options rather than try and take control of the situation. Don’t try to fix what they’re going through or give them any advice. 

Depending on the type of crisis at hand, a person may be extremely agitated, worked up or sensitive to stimulation. If that’s the case, these tips might help de-escalate the scenario:

  1. Keep your voice calm and talk slowly. 
  2. Move slowly, and announce what you are going to do before you do it. 
  3. Use body language to convey you’re there to help. Leave your arms at your sides. Assume a posture that is open and welcoming, with palms facing forward and knees slightly bent. 
  4. Give your coworker space, and disperse any audience surrounding them. It may help to make environmental adjustments like turning down the lights.

Mental Health Crisis

How to prepare for your next depressive episode.

How Managers Can Help

If you’re a manager, you have a responsibility to offer continued support for your staff during and after a mental health crisis. You and your staff will likely feel a mix or emotions. Shock, confusion, fear, guilt, sadness, anger and frustration are all normal reactions. Give your staff permission to take care of themselves. Reduce workloads and give time off when needed. 

Make a point of looking after your own well-being and mental health, and encourage your staff to do the same. Seek support if you need it, whether that’s through a health professional, friend or family member — but be sure to maintain confidentiality. Discourage rumors and gossip, and step in if you hear a disparaging comment related to what happened. You may want to designate a point person to coordinate all communication about the incident.

In the wake of a crisis, leaders need to be visible and proactively check in with employees. Even just showing your staff that you care and are available for them can be helpful. Share information with your employees about local resources for support and crisis counseling services, and access those resources yourself. If you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), make sure your staff is aware of it and how to access it. 

If you’re a manager and someone in your workplace has died by suicide, these guidelines may help

Employers need to focus on mental health as a critical component of emergency planning. When we are prepared to handle crisis situations at work, we can not only save lives but also improve workplace culture, increase awareness and help de-stigmatize mental health conditions. 

While we may not be able to completely prevent a mental health crisis, preparing for the worst-case scenario greatly improves the chances that someone gets the help they deserve when they need it most. A quick moment of intervention might be what saves someone’s life.

About the author

Rachel Unger is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. She's passionate about raising mental health awareness and promoting fairness in the workplace.

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