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Employers are, thankfully, becoming better attuned to the benefits of managing employee wellbeing, with many introducing policies and procedures to safeguard employee health and boost engagement and morale. By offering the likes of flexible working, access to personal counselling and healthcare cover, employers can go a long way to convincing their employees just how much they value their hard work and commitment.
HR professionals know too how employee wellbeing affects their behaviour, performance and productivity. Maintaining it is challenging at the best of times and can be tested further by the impact of stressful events such as moving house, the break-up of a relationship, being victim of a crime or the death of a loved one.
But, while HR teams are generally well prepared for dealing with the commoner life events that affect us all, they may not be so ready to deal with the impact traumatic events can have on their workforce when they occur on a larger scale.
Life-changing events can and do come from as a bolt from the blue – and leave lasting effects on those whom they touch. While making plans to support employees affected may be an unwelcome task, it is nevertheless important for HR professionals to prepare for the unexpected and accept the uncomfortable truth that their people can be caught up in traumatic events at any time and any place.
When a traumatic event occurs – be it a fatal accident involving a single employee through to a large scale occurrence lots of people – HR may be called upon to support them and possibly also their loved ones. HR will also have a critical role to play in helping to manage the flow of information about the incident to the wider company. So, for those who haven’t done so lately, now’s a good time to review their company’s policies and procedures to ensure that, should the worst happen, their organisation will be ready to respond.
Some employers think that counsellors should be brought in immediately after a traumatic incident to help employees talk through what they have witnessed and how they’re feeling. But this may be unnecessary and even counterproductive as going into detail too quickly may be confusing, upsetting and even harmful. More important is the need for employers to ensure employees get the necessary support to take care of immediate, basic needs such as their safety, shelter, sustenance and their loved ones.
Although it’s not possible to predict precisely how an individual will react to having experienced a traumatic event in the short or long term, it’s important for HR professionals to be aware that it’s likely to have considerable psychological impact. Individuals may take hours or even days to internalise and reflect on what they’ve experienced. Early on, they may still be in shock and struggle to take in information or answer questions.
At this time, they are better served by concentrating on simple things. Employers should make sure that they provide affected employees with reassurance and information on where and how to seek help and support. It may also be helpful for employers to make sure that they let those affected know that they appreciate how they’re feeling now – and may be feeling next week and in the weeks to come.
While it may sound counterintuitive to wait, this is an approach that can allow people to begin to internalise the experience they’ve been through in a way that will, in time, enable them to function normally again. The state of mind of someone who has been involved in a traumatic situation is in some regards akin to that of someone having had a broken limb.
While this can be helped initially by resetting the fractured bone, it still takes time to heal and recover. Following a traumatic event, our minds may go through a similar process, needing time to work through, understand and find meaning in what has happened – and then needing time to deal with it. No two people will take the same time or follow the same pattern of recovery so HR professionals should be sensitive to the fact that affected employees are likely to have different needs at different times to support their recovery.
Although post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is rare, guidelines produced by the National Institute for Health and Care Management* advocate a watchful waiting approach whereby individuals are observed for a minimum of four weeks before considering PTSD as a potential diagnosis. Following a traumatic incident, it’s likely that employees will experience a range of reactions, which may or may not be directly related to the incident. These could include flashbacks, a sense of fear, intrusive thoughts and hyper-vigilance. Other signs might include sleeplessness, anger, relationship issues, emotional detachment, feelings of suicide, depression and increased use of alcohol or drugs. A pre-existing history of traumatic experiences may exacerbate any reactions, and we may have no knowledge of their history.
After the event, employers need to be alert to changes in employees’ behaviour, performance, attendance and relationships. An employee who becomes withdrawn, unparticipative and generally ‘not themselves’ may be experiencing difficulty coping. And, where this occurs, employers should ensure affected individuals are aware of and encouraged to use the support that’s available to them – for example, through their company’s employee assistance programme or health insurance plan. Appropriate treatment might include trauma focused cognitive behaviour therapy and counselling albeit an individual’s needs for treatment and support are best determined by a specialist assessment from a mental health professional. Helping affected employees to secure interventions such as these can facilitate a timely return to normality.
*National Institute for Health and Care Management (2015). Post-traumatic stress disorder – management guidance
While it is important to give employees who’ve been affected by a traumatic event time and space to deal with the experience, HR professionals should not use this as a reason to avoid broaching the subject. Positively reassuring employees you are there to support them can be the best thing an employer can do to help them to come to deal with what can be a profound and even life-changing experience.
Planning is key – Pre-crisis is the best time to act. Ensure you have a policy in place outlining your crisis protocols and people trained in deploying them.
Decide where your expertise lies
Some organisations are large enough to provide off-site and on-site business continuity and crisis management and employ individuals to ensure their policy is implemented and their workforce supported. However, the scale of your organisation may be such that this is not feasible. That’s where organisations like ourselves can help. AXA PPP healthcare have a great deal of experience in this field and have developed CrisisCall® to help organisations build their crisis management strategy as well as what to do and expect should it need to be delivered.
Support your managers
Ensure your managers are trained in your policy as well as how to support and guide staff in a crisis.
Ensure your communications are clear, concise and timely. In the early stages of a crisis it’s how effective your communications are around what the crisis is what employees need to do and when and how they can,get support can all help mitigate uncertainty and provide a basis for employees affected to absorb and internalise what has happened.
Everyone is different and can be affected in different ways. How individuals rationalise the world around them and the experiences they have had will have an effect on how they are affected and how quickly they will be able to come to terms with the situation. Be flexible, listen and keep the door open.
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Find out more about CrisisCall® from AXA PPP healthcare
Eugene is qualified in health economics, radiotherapy and psychology and he has more than twenty five years of experience in the UK healthcare arena. He has worked in a variety of roles in both the public and private sectors and, for the past fifteen years, has specialised in the development and provision of psychological support services, including trauma and critical incident.
He is Head of Trauma Support for AXA PPP healthcare, managing a specialist trauma support service for organisations of many sizes. As well as delivering training on stress, resilience, mental health and managing critical incidents, he has worked with mental health providers, charities and government, advising on the management of mental health in the workplace and the management and delivery of organisational crisis support.
AXA PPP healthcare