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Could your organisation handle a human disaster?

11 July 2017

Could your organisation handle a human disaster?


As the heartbreaking Grenfell Tower tragedy shows, how victims and others impacted are treated during the aftermath of a human disaster really matters.

Once the immediate threat is over, providing compassionate leadership, psychological first aid and trauma support is essential in restoring those affected to a place of safety, stability and calm.

However, due to the speed at which tragedies unfold, upfront planning is essential in getting the right response in place. Unfortunately, far too many organisations have yet to consider how they would help employees affected by a traumatic event.

Having spent the last twenty years helping employers to prepare for and recover from traumatic events, we thought we’d share the top five things you need to consider if you want to ensure that the people element of your business recovery plans is all that it should be…


Five steps for handling a human disaster

Traumatic events are, by their very nature, unexpected bolts from the blue that no one anticipated when they set off for work that morning. So how do you prepare for the unexpected?

1. Upfront planning

Providing an effective response requires careful upfront planning. 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 which might have the power to cause distress to employees, regardless of whether or not the business was impacted.

In this sense, modern continuity work is as much about helping individuals exposed to terror or 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?

2. 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.

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 access food and shelter. This can be achieved with upfront trauma management training and by giving a senior leader the role of on-site ‘Incident Director’. Their job 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  and to meet the basic needs of traumatised employees and customers. 

Senior managers and leaders must also 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, continuity of pay while people are absent and workload in the weeks and months following the incident.

3. Immediate Response

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. This is because breaking news can often be exaggerated and it would be detrimental to start acting on the assumed death of an employee, offering condolences through the media for example, if it later turns out the employee had managed to escape or was injured.

As with everything else, the immediate response should be decided in advance because of the rate at which events move. So the team will need to be aware of how critical incidents unfold and have prepared statements and actions in advance. This doesn’t have to take up much time, keeping the response broad – and the far from ideal alternative is to try and come up with an appropriate response in the thick of rapidly moving events.

4. Psychological First Aid

Critical to reducing long-term psychological damage is ensuring first-aiders and managers know how to deliver psychological first aid to gently and quickly redirect those affected back to a place of stability and calm.

Just as there’s an ABC of physical first aid: Airways, Breathing, Circulation, there’s also an ABC for psychological first aid: Attend to Basic needs with Compassion. 

In practice, this requires asking those affected what they most need to feel safe and secure again and supporting them to get those needs met for themselves. Whilst you might think it would be helpful to fuss over them and do whatever you can for them, in the way that you might if they had been physically injured, this can actually be detrimental when it comes to psychological injuries. 

It’s very important for people’s long-term recovery that they start thinking about what they need and become empowered to start doing small things for themselves, to bring their mental functioning back online as soon as possible. For example, if they want to contact a family member, or want someone they trust to come and collect them, encourage them to make the call themselves, instead of doing this for them. It’s important to show compassion and understanding, but in a way that gets people functioning for themselves again.

Although professionally trained trauma management specialists, including Validium, can be swiftly deployed to deliver appropriate support in the aftermath of an incident, the immediate response of managers and leaders is also very important. That’s because people have a heightened memory for acts of kindness when they feel threatened and the extent to which their employer responds in a compassionate way, tangibly demonstrating the caring side of the organisation, will have a significant impact on their emotional recovery.

5. Trauma Support

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

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 among those taking part in group discussion. Employees may hear facts about the event that they were not aware of, or be forced to re-live events that the brain is trying to place into long-term memory stores.

Instead of encouraging people to re-live 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 support when needed.  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 CBT, EMDR, Sensori-Motor 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 possibly having to wait months for this support through the NHS.

If you would like the opportunity to discuss your human disaster response and recovery plans with one of our trauma specialists, please call 01494 685200 or email [email protected]


Nationwide Develops a Compassionate Continuity Plan

After reviewing the people element of its business continuity plans, Nationwide Building Society decided to create a clear process to help employees exposed to a traumatic incident to keep functioning and limit the risk of psychological issues.

"The creation of a properly thought through plan has enabled us to handle all sorts of potentially traumatic situations both quickly and sensitively.”

Tracy Conwell, Head of Employee Engagement, Nationwide Building Society

Find out more here