Could your organisation handle a human disaster?

Grenfell, a human disaster
Floral tributes at the funeral of a victim of the Grenfell tower block fire in June. Employers should prepare to support staff in the case of a human disaster. Photo: Peter MacDiarmid/REX/Shutterstock

Recent events, including terrorist attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire, are a warning to employers to be prepared to handle a human disaster, says Karen Matovu.

The Grenfell Tower tragedy, where at least 79 people lost their life in a tower block fire, was both heartbreaking and a tragic example of how not to handle the aftermath of a human disaster.

Just when those affected were crying out for authorities to take charge and show active care by offering immediate provision for basic needs, there appeared to be an acute vacuum in compassionate and courageous leadership from those at the top. This prolonged the suffering and trauma of those affected, culminating in the chief executive of the council where the fire took place having to resign.

Sadly, this is a scenario that could all too easily be played out across any other organisation where proper thought has yet to be given as to how best to handle a human disaster: be it a fire, terrorist attack, armed raid or any other event that threatens the life of employees.

Compassionate leadership

Compassionate leadership in the aftermath of a human tragedy matters. It matters because, once the immediate threat is over, the single most important thing you can do to minimise further psychological injuries is to reduce distress by gently redirecting people back to a position of stability, safety and calm.

Yes, professionally trained trauma management specialists can be quickly deployed to provide support after the event, but it’s the immediate response of leaders that can often have the biggest impact on preventing further distress.

Leaders need to make those affected feel safe again by compassionately responding to their basic needs, such as helping them to reconnect with family and get access to food and shelter. This can be achieved with upfront trauma management training and by giving a senior leader the role of on-site “incident direction”. Their role must be to ensure that the tone of messages around the incident is calm, consistent and compassionate in nature. They should also be given the authority and resources required to immediately resolve any issues required to meet the basic needs of the traumatised.

Senior managers and leaders must also be seen to be visible and remain calm, compassionate and reassuring. They must be prepared to assess the practical needs of those affected and provide information and answers on questions such as increasing safety or security measures, pay while people are absent and workload in the weeks and months following the incident.

Failure to think about both the emotional and practical needs of those affected can, as has been demonstrated all too clearly, cause a human crisis to spiral into a public relations disaster, which does nothing to facilitate the recovery of those affected.

Upfront planning for a human disaster

Providing an effective response requires careful upfront planning. Traumatic events are, however, unexpected bolts from the blue that no one anticipated when they set off for work that morning. So how do you plan for the unexpected?

Rather than trying to be too prescriptive about what might happen, it’s better to put in place general guidelines, to deal with broad scenarios that might have the power to cause distress to employees, regardless of whether or not the business was affected.

In this sense, modern continuity is as much about helping individuals exposed to trauma to recover as it is about keeping the business and systems up and running.

Safety, security, HR, OH, business leaders and relevant external suppliers need to come together to create an incident team and decide who is responsible for what. Who should be liaising with the emergency services, next of kin, employees, customers and the media? Who should decide next steps with regard to closing down the business and sending people home or keeping services running? What other actions might be required to restore those affected to a place of safety and calm? What psychological support services will need to be put in place?

News of a tragic event, be it a fire, terrorist attack, armed raid or other disaster, is unlikely to come through normal business channels. Instead, breaking news of a tragedy is mostly likely to emerge via social media, the news or an eyewitness.

Whatever the source, once an incident is deemed serious enough to invoke the plan, members of the team will need to come together to confirm the facts and deliver their initial actions. As with everything else, these will need to be decided in advance because of the rate at which events move.

The team will need to consider how critical incidents unfold and prepare statements and actions in advance.

The far-from-ideal alternative is to try to come up with an appropriate response when those responsible for doing so may by then be traumatised themselves.

Psychological first aid

If they have been exposed to a traumatic event, any employees or customers caught up in events will not be thinking rationally. They will be frightened and shocked, wanting to get away from the situation, fight their way out or become immobilised with fear.

By preparing managers to understand these psychological responses, you can increase their ability to cope themselves and support others.

Faced with shocked, distressed and potentially injured individuals, the general focus will be on treating physical wounds. The consequence of such a ‘treatment-focused’ approach is that individuals can inadvertently be made to remain in a state of helplessness.

Instead, in order to limit psychological damage, psychological first aid encourages empowering victims to do little things for themselves that restore their day-to-day functioning and personal networks.

The main reason for encouraging self-directed soothing and control is that it gives the traumatised person a feeling of choice and control. This is restorative, as the very nature of trauma is that it robs an individual of their normal power and control. By giving them back some sense of control, you can help them start to recover normal functioning as soon as possible, to help reduce the risk of long-term psychological damage.

Trauma response

The primary objective following any traumatic event is to restore safety and normality. The best way to achieve this is for business leaders to make clear interventions to remove the threat and restore business as usual, at the same time as expressing care and taking steps to encourage team collaboration and belonging.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) currently discourages the use of critical incident stress debriefing because of the risk of vicarious trauma and re-traumatisation between those taking part in group discussions. Employees may hear facts about the event that they were not aware of, or be forced to relive events that the brain is trying to place into long-term memory stores.

Instead of encouraging them to relive events, psychological first aid should be deployed and employees made aware that experiencing flashbacks, insomnia and a desire to avoid the place where the incident happened is normal and to be expected.

They should also be informed of the typical lifespan of symptoms and given advice on a self-care regime they can follow to facilitate the brain’s innate capacity for spontaneous recovery.

Most people are surprisingly resilient and will recover normal mental function within four weeks, even if they may still feel forever changed by events.

However, some people may experience an escalation of symptoms or prolonged symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

NICE therefore recommends a “watchful waiting” or “mindful monitoring” period for the first four weeks, so that anyone struggling to recover can be directed towards appropriate, immediate support.

An appropriate partner, who can provide this level of specialist support, should be identified and vetted far in advance of any requirement, as part of the trauma planning process.

Depending on the level of residual trauma, affected employees are likely to be offered trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, sensorimotor psychotherapy or supportive counselling.

Employees should also be made fully aware of access to any other available therapies, such as the professional counselling and trauma support immediately available via a good employee assistance programme (EAP), instead of them having to wait months for this on the NHS.

Increase resilience

The more interconnected and supported we feel in good times, the more likely we are to reach out and support each other in the aftermath of a crisis. So much so that our sense of belonging and mutual care for one another is the biggest predictor of recovery following a traumatic event.

The way in which communities have pulled together after the recent terror attacks and the Grenfell tragedy is a natural psychological response. When we feel threatened, we enter into “tending and befriending” behaviour.

Tending revolves around nurturing our young by pulling them in close to us and caring for them, which releases a chemical in our brains that makes us feel less threatened and fearful.

However, befriending is about building communities by increasing our social connection with others, which increases vigilance and reduces the risks we face.

Employers can actively help to create these trusting support networks within their organisations by facilitating group-based discussions on topics that might be distracting or distressing for employees, such as loneliness or work-life balance. Or simply by encouraging people to get to know one another better, by eating lunch together, instead of in isolation at their desks.

The more comfortable and able we feel supporting each other in good times, the more comfortable and able we will be to do this in bad times.

Karen Matovu is head of trauma management training at Validium, which provides employee wellbeing, trauma and rehabilitation services.

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