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Volume 31, Issue 4

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Taking Care of Human Emotions While Protecting Your Business’ Bottom Line
Reasonable variations of human emotions are expected at the workplace. People have feelings. Emotions that accumulate, collect force, expand in volume and begin to spin are another matter entirely. Spinning emotions can become as unmanageable as a tornado and in the workplace they can cause just as much damage in terms of human distress and economic disruption.

All people have emotions. Normal people and abnormal people have emotions. Emotions happen at home and at work. So understanding how individuals or groups respond emotionally in a business situation is important to have a complete perspective of human beings in a business function. Different people have different sets of emotions. Some people let emotions roll off their backs like water off a duck. Other people swallow emotions and hold them in until they become toxic waste that needs a disposal site. Some have small, simple feelings and others have large, complicated emotions. Stresses of life tickle our emotions or act as fuses in a time bomb. Stress triggers emotion. Extreme stress complicates the wide range of varying emotional responses. Work is a stressor. Sometimes work is an extreme stressor.

Since everyone has emotion, it is important to know what kinds of emotion are regular and what kinds are irregular, abnormal, or damaging within the business environment. To build a strong, well-grounded, value-added set of references for professional discussions and planning for emotional continuity management, a manager needs to know at least the basics about human emotion. Advanced knowledge is preferable.

Emotional continuity management training involves understanding and planning for emotions that come from the stress caused by changes inside business, from small adjustments to catastrophic upheavals. This specialization of business continuity management requires knowing emotional and humanity-based needs and functions of people and not just technology and performance data. Emergency managers and business continuity planners sometimes pose the questions, “What if during a disaster your computer is working, but no one shows up to use it? What if no one is working the computer because they are terrified to show up to a work site devastated by an earthquake or bombing and they stay home to care for their children?”

On the other hand, the emotional continuity manager asks, “What if no one is coming or no one is producing even if they are at the site because they are grieving or anticipating the next wave of danger? What happens if employees are engaged in emotional combat with another employee through gossip, innuendo, or out-and-out verbal warfare? What if the entire company is in turmoil because we have an emotional terrorist who is just driving everyone bonkers?”

The answer is that in terms of bottom-line thinking, productivity is productivity and if your employees are not available because their emotions are not calibrated to your industry standards, then fiscal risks must be considered. Human compassion needs are important. And so is money.

Today’s workplace risks are daunting. All employees and managers need a full range of options to be fully prepared for the accidental or intentional, thinkable and the unthinkable incident. Employees today face the possibility of biological, nuclear, incendiary, chemical, explosive, or electronic catastrophe while potentially working in the same cubicle with someone ready to commit suicide over personal issues at home. They face rumors of downsizing and outsourcing while watching for anthrax amidst rumors that co-workers are having affairs. An employee coughs, someone jokes nervously about SARS, or teases a co-worker about their hamburger coming from a Mad Cow, someone laughs, someone worries, and productivity can falter as minds are not on tasks.

Emotions run rampant in human lives and therefore at work sites. High-demand emotions demonstrated by complicated workplace relationships, time-consuming divorce proceedings, addiction behaviors, violence, illness, and death are common issues at work sites which people either manage well or do not manage well. Low-demand emotions demonstrated by annoyances, petty bickering, competition, prejudice, bias, minor power struggles, health variables, politics and the daily grind take up mental space as well as emotional space. Another challenging, emotional risk at work is created by emotional terrorists who intentionally exploit emotions for their own agendas. Most nice people do not want to believe these types of people exist. They do.

I define emotional terrorism as “domestic terrorism that uses emotions as ammunition.” It doesn’t take a death to create a serious, emotional catastrophe. It only takes fear.

It is reasonable to assume that dramatic effects from a terrorist attack, natural disaster, disgruntled employee shooting, or natural death at the work site would create emotional content. That content can be something that develops, evolves and resolves, or gathers speed and force like a tornado to become a spinning energy event with a life of its own. Even smaller events, such as a fully involved gossip chain or a computer upgrade can lead to the voluntary or involuntary exit of valuable employees. This can add energy to an emotional spin and translate into real risk features such as time loss, recruitment nightmares, disruptions in customer service, additional management hours, remediations and trainings, consultation fees, employee assistance program (EAP) dollars spent, human resources (HR) time spent, administrative restructuring, and expensive and daunting litigations. Companies that prepare for the full range of emotions and therefore emotional risks, from annoyance to catastrophe, are better equipped to adjust to any emotionally charged event, small or large. It is never a question of if something will happen to disrupt the flow of productivity, it is only a question of when and how large.

Emotions that ebb and flow are functional in the workplace. A healthy system should be able to manage the ups and downs of emotions. Emotions directly affect the continuity of production and services, customer and vendor relations, and essential infrastructure.

Unstable emotional infrastructure in the workplace disrupts business through such measurable costs as medical and mental health care, employee retention and retraining costs, time loss, or legal fees. Emotional continuity management is reasonably simple for managers when they have provided the justifiable concepts, empirical evidence that the risks are real, a set of correct tools, and instructions in their use. What hasn’t been easy until recently has been convincing the “powers that be” that it is value-added work to deal directly and procedurally with emotions in the workplace. Business decision-makers generally have not seen emotions as part of the working technology and have done everything they can do to avoid the topic. Now, cutting-edge companies are turning the corner. Even technology continuity managers are talking human resources benefits and scrambling to find ways to evaluate feelings and risks. This is readily done through the emotional continuity process.

Yes, times are changing. Making a case for policy to manage emotions is now getting easier. For all the pain and horror associated with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, employers are getting the message that no one is immune to crisis. In today’s heightened security environments, the demands of managing complex workplace emotions have increased beyond the normal training supplied by in-house human resources professionals and employee assistance plans. Many extremely well-meaning HR and EAP providers just do not have the necessary training to manage the complicated strata of extreme emotional responses. Emotions at work today go well beyond the former standards of HR and EAP training. HR and EAP providers now must have advanced trauma management training to be prepared to support employees. The days of easy emotional management are over. Life and work are much too complicated.

Significant emotions from small to extreme are no longer the sole domain of HR, EAP, or even emergency first responders and counselors. Emotions are spinning in the very midst of your team, project, cubicle, and company. Emotions are not just at the scene of a disaster. Emotions are present. And because they are not “controllable,” human emotions are not subject to being mandated. This doesn’t mean they cannot be managed.

Emotions are going to happen at the workplace. There are many times when emotions cannot be simply outsourced to an external provider of services. There are many times that a manager will face an extreme emotional reaction. Distressed people will require management regularly. That is part of your job! Your job today includes acquiring the skills necessary to know when you can manage emotions yourself, when you are way over your head, and when you need to call for backup. Emotional continuity management is a collection of ideas and skills supported by scientifically designed tools that help you manage, not control, human emotions.

I have discovered that many 21st century organizations are beginning to agree that comprehensive business continuity management must address managing people’s emotions. They are discovering that a system-wide approach to creating an emotionally spin-free workplace means preparing themselves and all employees for potential emotional impact, thus lowering the risks of collective, system-wide spinning. This planning also prepares everyone for rapid recovery no matter the size or conditions of the impact event. Organizations that develop emotional continuity policy, procedures, practice drills, multiple resources, and management tools are more ready to withstand whatever comes along with a healthy, rapid-recovery mentality.

Good days are good. Bad days are bad. But what happens if things go terribly, terribly, terribly bad? Then what? Then you need to have a policy, a plan, and the right tools to support your business and your people!


Vali Hawkins Mitchell, Ph.D., LMHC, consults nationally and has pioneered the development of the newest field of business continuity, disaster and contingency planning, emotional continuity planning (www.emotionalcontinuity.com). The well-published writer, public speaker, researcher, and author of Emotional Terrors in the Workplace: Protecting Your Business’ Bottom Line (ISBN 1-031332-27-4, http://www.rothstein.com/data/dr771.htm) and Dr. Vali’s Survival Guide: Tips for the Journey, (amazon.com) has spent the last two decades teaching, consulting, coaching, counseling, and providing trauma counseling at major disasters, lives in the shadow of Mount St. Helens, the Hanford Nuclear Site and the Umatilla Chemical Weapons Depot which provide her some unique perspectives on the emotional nature of disaster planning.