Ukraine conflict: How can HR help?

People Management asks experts what business leaders and people practitioners need to consider as they look to support those affected

Ukraine conflict: How can HR help?

On 21 February 2022, many woke up to news that Russia, under president Vladimir Putin’s orders, had launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Social media and news coverage, as well as the scale of the conflict, has made it impossible to ignore. The head of the UN’s refugee agency has said that already 500,000 people have fled Ukraine. Children have been killed. The nuclear potential of the conflict has been ramped up significantly. And unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia will also impact the UK as well as EU nations.

As Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School and former CIPD president, says: “It’s really depressing news and it can make you really low.”

Why HR needs to support those indirectly affected

It’s not just those in Ukraine who need support: the country has a large diaspora, including 20,000 people in the UK. There will be UK employees who will be impacted because they are Ukrainian, or because they have family, friends or colleagues in the country. There will also be Russians in the UK who may fear reprisals, as well as individuals without a direct connection who are still affected by the war and all its implications.

Many in HR are already working outside of company boundaries to help. Much like in the early stages of the pandemic, the function is community-sourcing information into open source documents, pop-up websites and LinkedIn threads, in order to create evolving playbooks of support.

Sergio Caredda, until recently chief people officer at Italian retailer OVS and a current adviser there, created the community-sourced information site HR For Ukraine. He says now is the time for HR to think about how it can support employees, cautioning that the conflict will have both a psychological effect and an outsized economic and business impact. “Even people who don't have anything to do with Ukraine might find this difficult to cope with [and] none of us in European HR have been trained on how to cope with a war,” he says.

How to identify employees who need help

Cooper says that the first step is to identify those that need help. HR likely has this information already; however Acas advises sending company-wide messages offering support rather than targeting individuals so as not to be discriminatory or spark anxiety.

Karen Holden, founder of A City Law Firm, adds that as long as employers abide by Data Protection Act principles, extending a helping hand isn’t wrong. “Staff are entitled to a duty of confidentiality but there is nothing wrong with an employer reaching out to staff to offer support,” she says.

How to offer support

The second step, Cooper says, is for HR to understand what support it can feasibly deliver. One larger employer, PwC, told People Management it was using its size to quickly raise money to help those affected – an action that can help mitigate the feeling of helplessness many staff might be experiencing. But there are things all firms can be doing.

Employers should remind managers and employees what guidance and services they can access via the workplace, for example EAPs and bereavement counselling. Cooper adds HR can repurpose business networks to help staff. “Employers are in loads of major cities: help employees find out information and if you can’t, just be concerned,” he says.

Francoise Woolley, head of mental health and wellbeing at Acas, adds that HR can remind managers that they can adjust deadlines and offer flexibility around working hours. “Employers should be sensitive towards affected staff and offer as much support as possible,” Woolley says. According to Acas, simple tweaks to policies, such as relaxing mobile phone or contact policies, can also help individuals who might be anxious about missing potential communication with family. It adds that HR should also be open to use of unpaid, sickness, and paid special leave, as well as unpaid holiday requests.

Ben Willmott, head of policy at CIPD, says flexibility over working hours or requests for time off “can help employees balance competing demands on them and aid in managing stress and anxiety, for example if they are trying to establish the whereabouts or safety of loved ones. Organisations should also be prepared to provide compassionate support if staff are affected by bereavement as a result of the conflict.”

What further support should HR offer?

While organisations can provide centralised provision, Cooper thinks managers are best placed to deliver personalised support, urging them to talk to their teams. “I think it's better to be personal,” he said. Managers should also be able to signpost professional help, and Acas recommends HR works with them to create lists of organisations offering applicable assistance, for example NHS Every Mind Matters or the charity Mind.

Ann Roberts, chief people officer at Flo Health, which has colleagues both in Ukraine and in the UK, writes on LinkedIn that HR can bring all colleagues together daily to listen to concerns and share updates and focus on what issues they can practically solve. Caredda agrees, adding: “HR should not be demoralising but we shouldn’t hide the facts, we need to create focus.”

While there is no legal requirement to provide counselling or similar support, Acas recommends utilising mental health first-aiders, champions or onsite counsellors. “There needs to be a real awareness of… depression and emotional wellbeing [and] employers do have a legal duty to consider reasonable adjustments, sick leave and referrals if there are alarm bells,” says Holden.

How can HR prepare for the unexpected?

There will also be consequences that HR might not be prepared for as the widespread nature of the geopolitical and economic fallout takes form. People Management has heard examples of staff being asked to be paid in cryptocurrency to avoid currency fluctuations and employees asking HR what happens if they want to go and fight in Ukraine. While this is outside of usual HR provision, firms need to pay attention.

For some, all they can do is monitor the situation and make adjustments to their support as necessary, remembering core HR tenets. Cooper adds: “It’s time for HR to be human… let's do the ‘H’ in ‘HR’ and for all our staff who are upset, talk to them and listen to them.”

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The CIPD has collated a number of resources to support the HR community at this time: 

  • CIPD Community – providing a 24/7 supportive network of HR professionals to discuss topics affecting the workplace 

  • CIPD Mental Health Guide – practical guidance for people managers on facilitating open conversations with colleagues and supporting staff during difficult times 

  • HR For Ukraine – a collection of crowdsourced resources from the HR community to help support the people of Ukraine