Unprepared for the worst

It is almost a year since explosions tore through the centre of London on 7 July.

At 8:50am, three bombs exploded within 50 seconds of each other on three London Underground trains. These were shortly followed by a fourth bomb, which exploded on a bus in Tavistock Square at 9:47am. Fifty six people were killed in the attacks and about 700 injured. London’s transport and telecommunications systems were left in chaos. It is estimated the attacks cost the city’s economy £300m.

Buncefield and bird flu

Five months later, the Buncefield oil depot in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, exploded, covering a large area of the South East in a black cloud and crippling local businesses.

Studies by the East of England Development Agency show the incident cost local firms more than £70m. It seriously disrupted the operations of 25 businesses, and 1,422 jobs had to be relocated.

Reports of a bird flu epidemic set to sweep the globe, decimating populations, capped a traumatic year.If nothing else, you might think this onslaught of misfortune would have made employers wonder about what they should do to keep operating in the face of such traumatic events.

That was the central message of CBI director-general Sir Digby Jones’ speech at the beginning of the year. He said that re-assessing the risks facing business should be industry’s top resolution for the New Year.

“Everyone in business needs to spend some time this January re-assessing their business risk,” he said.

“As New Year resolutions go, few things can be more important than ensuring your business has a future, whatever happens outside your door.”

However, come May, it was clear this advice was falling on deaf ears.

The London Business Survey, by the CBI and KPMG, showed that half of the capital’s businesses did not have plans in place to deal with a terror attack or other emergency.

Shortly afterwards, the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) released findings showing that although most managers (77%) believe business continuity is viewed as important by their senior management teams, less than half (49%) said their organisation had a business continuity plan (BCP) in place.

To mark the first anniversary of the 7/7 attacks, the British Chambers of Commerce will release research that will say much the same thing – businesses still aren’t taking the threat seriously. In fact, a spokesman for the London Chamber of Commerce revealed that businesses are actually less concerned about terrorism than they were a year ago.

Lack of planning

Even more worryingly, three out of four companies are unprepared for the impact that losing staff will have if disaster strikes.

The vast majority (83%) of the 1,150 public and private sector managers surveyed by the CMI admitted they did not have any plans to cope with long-term high levels of absence. It seems few companies are worried about their people as long as their IT systems are still running.

Kate Nowlan, chief executive of employee assistance provider CiC, said that looking after the needs of staff was still at the bottom of the pile of business concerns in the event of a disaster.

“There are still big issues around looking after the psychological needs of staff,” she said. “HR departments should be aware of what happens to people [in the event of a disaster].”

“If you know what to expect, then you are in a position to deal with it,” Nowlan said. “Does the company have people trained to break bad news, for example? If you know how to break bad news, then you know how to support your workforce.

”This means going beyond making sure people know what to do and where to go in the event of a disaster. Traumatic events can mean empty posts, as staff stay at home or are unable to come to work, or even high rates of presenteeism – Nowlan notes that often workers are too afraid to go home after a traumatic event.

Preparing staff

Andy Tomkinson, director of the Business Continuity Institute, said the people aspects of business continuity were still way down in the list of companies’ considerations, but preparing staff for the unknown was crucial.

“The biggest disruption to business will be caused by fear,” he said. “It is very difficult to be calm unless there has been education and practice.

Fear creates paranoia and that stops people coming to work – even if nothing has actually happened.

”As with all things business-related, the best way to sell an idea is by mentioning the bottom line.

As Jo Causon, director of corporate affairs at the CMI, pointed out: “It’s all very well having the technology, but if you have no-one to run it, that’s a problem.

”At the moment, business reaction to a disaster can be split into three categories: companies that rushed to implement/update their BCPs and have since left them to gather dust; those that did nothing at all; and those who have renewed, revisited and updated their BCPs regularly.

This latter group makes up a very small minority of employers. With terrorist bombs, oil conflagrations and flu pandemics failing to prompt many businesses to take action, you have to wonder just what has to happen to persuade companies that business continuity planning might be a good idea in these volatile times.

What employers can do to prepare

  • Psychological inoculation. Preparing staff for the psychological effects of a major crisis plays a vital part in the prevention of stress disorders leading to absenteeism.
  • Educating staff as to the likely normal reactions to trauma (eg, sleeplessness and anxiety).
  • Ensuring an employee assistance programme (EAP) is in place with 24/7 cover – and also ensuring that the EAP freephone number is high on the list of ‘cascade phone numbers’ in the business continuity plan.
  • Train managers in HR/OH/health and safety in issues such as breaking bad news.
  • Ensure risk assessment protocols are in place for staff who may have been traumatised – these can be carried out internally or by trauma response experts. If staff have been exposed to major trauma, implement the risk assessment programme with follow-up after six weeks.
  • HR/OH/health and safety departments should liaise with the business continuity department to ensure that ‘people’ aspects of contingency plans are in place. Ensure this plan is revisited on a six-monthly basis – and that new entrants to the company are always inducted.

Source: Kate Nowlan, chief executive, employee assistance provider CiC

Number crunching

  • £300m: The cost to the economy of the 7 July London bombings.
  • £70m: The cost to local businesses following the Buncefield oil depot explosion.
  • 50% The percentage of London’s businesses that do not have plans in place to deal with a terror attack or other emergency.
  • 49% The percentage of UK managers who say their organisation has a business continuity plan (BCP) in place.
  • 83% The percentage of managers who admit they do not have any plans to cope with absence levels for anything beyond the short term.

Sources: CBI/KPMG, Chartered Management Institute and East of England Development Agency

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