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Westminster Attack Highlights Need For Compassionate Continuity Planning

30 March 2017

Westminster Attack Highlights Need For Compassionate Continuity Planning


Last week, a traumatic event managed to bring one of the most protected and best prepared employers to a halt.

An attack was highly anticipated, but when it came, even though it wasn’t high-tech and featured only a single man armed with just a car and a knife, it was nevertheless serious enough to bring the business of government to a standstill.

Given the high levels of security in place, it’s reasonable to assume there was never any real threat to MPs and other staff, who were nonetheless told to lie on the floor and locked inside while police shot dead the attacker responsible for killing members of the public just outside their place of work.

That it was right to put these precautions in place isn’t in dispute, that so many other organisations have yet to put specific plans in place for supporting employees exposed to sudden death is worrying.

Although the risk of employees being exposed to a fatal workplace accident is at an all-time low, with just 144 workplace-related deaths recorded last year, the risk of employees being exposed to sudden death in other ways has increased. This is due to many factors, including the heightened risk of a terror attack, increasingly threatening behaviour from customers and suicide becoming the main cause of death for adults under 50.

For those employees exposed to death, whether directly due to someone being killed nearby or a high-profile member of staff taking their own life, exposure to sudden death of any kind can prove deeply traumatic.

Even so, most business continuity plans remain more concerned with where best to relocate back-up buildings and servers, than they do with how best to meet the emotional and psychological needs of employees exposed to trauma. 

You can never predict exactly how employees will feel after being made to feel like their life was potentially under threat. However, we do know those affected are most likely to want to make contact with their family, have lots of questions and want to move away from where the incident happened. All this requires a much more compassionate approach to continuity planning.

Compassionate continuity plans not only consider how best to respond to traumatic events as they are unfolding – in terms of who should be responsible for liaising with emergency services, next of kin and the media – but also how best to make people feel safe again. For example, by helping them to connect with loved ones or providing enough transportation to take everyone home. If you want them to feel like the company isn’t trying to hide or withhold information, you need a process for regular, open communication and updates, instead of leaving employees to learn about new developments via social media.

Managers and business leaders also need to be prepared to handle questions from employees and know in advance how to deal with issues ranging from how to represent the organisation at a funeral, to how to deal with a desk that’s been turned into a shrine.

Although traumatic events are, by their very nature, unexpected bolts from the blue, you can still prepare for the unexpected by bringing together HR, OH, security, communications and any third-party suppliers responsible for returning people to work and asking everyone to consider: “What do we want people to be saying about our handing of a human disaster or potentially traumatic event?”

A useful first step is to look at any existing disaster recovery plans and ask yourself: “Would my loved ones think this was good enough?” Anyone who cares for you will want to know that you’ll be okay and looked after. If the plan only looks at ways of relocating vital business services, with no mention of how to reassure or look after its people, your family wouldn’t be happy, and neither should you be.

With employees at risk of developing long-term psychological damage if they’re not immediately provided with the appropriate response and the media ready to jump on any misstep, you’ve only got one chance to get it right.

Critical to providing the right response is upfront planning, so that business leaders find themselves responsible for putting a properly thought-through plan into action, rather than having to come up with one while in a state of bereavement or crisis.

Could your employees recover from a traumatic event?


If employees are exposed to a traumatic event, such as a terrorist attack or distressing workplace accident, administering psychological first aid is essential for reducing long-term psychological damage.

Read our six step guide here