When was the last time that planning or preparing for critical incidents reached the top of your to do list? Is it something you’ve ever even given any consideration to? Or is it something that only became a priority when something bad has happened?
The place to start – which is perhaps what puts many people off – is to think about business continuity following serious incidents and situations that can affect individual employees, your organisation and also your customers and your productivity. What challenging situations could bring your business to a standstill, affect staff performance or impact on absence?
What would you do if there was a sudden death in your workplace today? Between April and June last year the HSE recorded 57 people who were fatally injured at work. How would you break this bad news to the employee’s family? How would you support those who witnessed this death? Or how would you inform team members if a colleague was killed this morning while cycling to work?
And what about an employee who has been diagnosed with a terminal or long term illness? How will you support them and their colleagues? Each year, for example, 90,000 people of working age are diagnosed with cancer and many will choose to continue working. How prepared are you to manage an employee who is affected by cancer and help their team members cope with this change?
And then there are the ‘biggies’ – termed as such due to the reach and number of people who are involved in and affected by them – such as the London Bombings. Clearly it’s an understatement to say here that the impact, scale and reach of such critical incidents was really brought home to employers and their workforces in July 2007. What are your plans for dealing with such an incident and supporting your employees in the aftermath?
Training is, of course, at the heart of preparing for trauma and serious incidents; think of it as a psychological inoculation, just like a flu jab, that can help to protect employees if the worst does happen. You’ve probably done a fire drill recently and are confident that employees know what to do if there’s a fire in the workplace. But what have you done to protect the same employees against the psychological impact of a fire in the workplace – or are you expecting them to bounce back as though nothing has happened?
Without preparation and training, managers cannot be expected to have the awareness or appreciation of what an individual might be going through at home after experiencing a death in the workplace, a road accident on their way to the office or something worse. Training will, for example, help managers to understand, appreciate and recognise that an employee who has experienced a trauma will likely be experiencing recurrent nightmares, may be drinking or self-medicating heavily, as well as suffering from constant anxiety.
An awareness of the effects of trauma will also mean that a manager can signpost affected employees to support, advice and counselling from services such as employee assistance programmes or occupational health teams, as well as making reasonable and appropriate adjustments in their work and responsibilities until such time as they’re fit to return or full duties.
It’s only by setting some time aside, away from the day to day pressures of work, that you can best reflect on the ‘what ifs’ and get a firm grasp on how to practically minimise the emotional and business impact of traumas and critical incidents. Yes, thinking through and preparing for the human impact of tragedy isn’t the most pleasant task – after all, it’s encouraging you to think about the very worst things that might happen – but it is part of our responsibility as HR professionals.
We have a duty of care to our employees to protect them and this includes equipping managers with the practical skills and knowledge that will help them stand firm in the face of an unexpected trauma. There’s also a duty to customers to ensure that measures are in place to promote business continuity and preserve service standards should an incident occur.
Put simply, by being mature about critical incidents and disasters and their impact on our workplace means that HR can continue to serve the very best interests of all those involved and ensure that as individuals, as well as professionals, that we’re not left wishing we’d bothered to prepare for the worst rather than glad we’d invested our time.
Kate Nowlan is chief executive, CiC.
She is a psychotherapist and trainer with a particular interest in supporting those who have been exposed to cumulative traumatic experiences in the course of their work.