Dealing with disaster

Disaster recovery programmes often focus on IT systems, but it is essential to remember the impact disasters can have on your people, argues Rosie Murray.

The past two years have unleashed a glut of natural disasters and terrorist attacks – from the Asian tsunami to the London bombings. And on 10 February, businesses in the City remembered the victims of the IRA’s Docklands bombing 10 years ago.

But while a survey by the Financial Services Authority shows that the UK’s top financial institutions are now ‘well prepared’ to cope with major incidents such as these, many organisations still don’t have any business continuity plans.

The Civil Contingencies Act – which has recently been revised – provides further impetus to put plans in place. The Act means business continuity planning must now form a major part of any emergency plan for local communities and the businesses that work within them.
Research company Datamation says 40% of businesses that experience a major interruption and do not have continuity of availability services in place never re-open, so having a disaster recovery plan is essential.

It is crucial to realise, however, that business continuity means more than having alternative sites, tamper-free, robust IT systems and off-site facilities. These are essential components of any business, but it is the staff who will enable the company to move forward from the chaos of a major incident. This is where HR’s role is key.

Damaging effects

Psychologists who have researched the effects of disasters on victims have found that an important part of the business continuity planning process is examining the potential exposure of your staff to terrorist or other events. Remember, traumatic events are not all large-scale disasters. Staff can suffer from personal disasters that affect smaller numbers of people, but can be equally devastating. These might include violent crime within the workplace, death or injury from suicide or road traffic collisions.

People’s reactions may vary in strength and how they manifest themselves, and will be influenced by previous experiences, exposure to past traumas and personal coping mechanisms.

Some people will be seriously affected, not just by the current experience, but also by previous experiences, as the crisis can trigger memories or emotions that can re-emerge in full force. And some individuals may be powerfully affected even if they were not close to the incident or the person who died.

The greater the stress among staff, the more difficult it becomes to make decisions that would normally be a matter of course.

To make matters worse, everyone in the workforce will have family and friends who will be affected, although not directly involved. While these people may not be the direct responsibility of the company, it would be foolish to ignore the impact of a distressed family on an already stressed and traumatised member of staff.

The impact of stress is also a key issue. Increased legislation around managing stress (employers have duties under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to assess the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities) means employers now have a ‘duty of care’ to ensure workers do not suffer from it. Stress alone could result in an increase in workplace accidents and expensive errors with an accompanying decrease in morale – all of which may be detrimental to the company, both in image and profit.

Supportive measures

Any post-trauma support programme requires commitment from senior management. Establish realistic resources for dealing with a disaster and ensure a written policy is available. This is not an area in which to cut costs as the ultimate price could be huge if initial outlay is skimped.

The benefits of getting this right are incalculable; the costs of getting it wrong may be incredible.

A cautionary tale…

A fire at Premier Foods’ factory in Bury-St-Edmunds, which produces Branston Pickle, is a prime example of the importance of having a disaster recovery plan.

The fire in October 2004 caused significant damage to 40% of the plant, bringing production to a standstill and prompting pickle-lovers to place bids for as much as six times the price of a jar on eBay.

Unlike other companies, moving to another site was not an option as the ‘secret recipe’ could only be produced at that plant. Instead, volunteers from the factory’s 250 workers laboured round the clock to restore production. The plant didn’t operate at full capacity again until February 2005.

The company, which also makes Loyd Grossman sauces, said the fire effectively removed two of its most popular brands for last 10 weeks of the year, leaving sales growth flat.

Points to remember

  • Acknowledge your company’s duty of care in relation to stress and distress.
  • It is your staff who will help business recovery from the chaos of a major incident.
  • Understand the implications for the continuity of business.
  • Individuals will have individual responses and reactions relating to the trauma. Some of these reactions may surprise you, but all of them are normal.
  • Do not judge the individual concerned.
  • Develop a post-trauma support programme in advance of an incident.
  • Resource this programme realistically.

Source: Survive

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Rosie Murray is a consultant with business continuity group Survive

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