While many organisations regularly review their continuity planning to ensure they have the data systems in place to protect their operations in an emergency, relatively few have invested in the training required to ensure the well-being of their staff — both during and after such an incident.
Research shows that it is how an organisation treats its staff in the aftermath of a traumatic incident which can have a profound effect, not only upon the recovery of the individuals directly involved, but also upon their colleagues and families.
Individuals can be traumatised by a disaster for some time afterwards and during this period, their productivity and commitment to the organisation can be drastically reduced.
In this context, managers have to play a key role in managing a situation which may ultimately be more damaging to the organisation than the initial event itself.
Anyone who has been involved in a traumatic incident is likely to have some form of reaction to it. These may happen immediately, or may not occur for weeks, months or, sometimes, years later.
Personnel are more likely to be badly affected if:
• There were fatalities or injuries during the incident, and these were sudden or violent; • The individual experiences feelings of guilt that he or she could have done more to help the injured or could have prevented the accident; • They lack adequate support from family, friends or colleagues; and • The stress from the incident comes on top of unrelated, existing problems.
An individual’s emotions are likely to be in turmoil after the event, although certain others may feel nothing. Some of the more common reactions are:
* Irrational guilt for having survived when others did not;
* Anger at what has happened, or the injustice or senselessness of it.
* Fear of breaking down or losing control and being unable to cope.
* Shame for not having reacted as might have been expected to; and
* Sadness about the deaths and injuries to colleagues.
People are very likely to find that they are unable to stop thinking about the incident; experience disturbed sleep, suffer loss of memory, concentration or motivation. They may experience flashbacks, hate to be reminded of what happened, or are always on their guard against a repetition of the incident.
Individuals often experience tiredness, sleeplessness, nightmares, dizziness, palpitations, difficulty in breathing, tightness in the throat and chest, sickness, diarrhoea, menstrual problems, changes in sexual interest or eating habits, and many other symptoms — frequently without consciously making a connection with the incident.
Individuals may feel hurt and their personal relationships, particularly with their partner, may come under additional strain. They could find themselves taking their anger out on their family, or emotionally withdrawing from close contacts, just when they need them the most.
Nature often heals by allowing feelings to emerge naturally and enabling people to want to talk about them. This should be encouraged if the opportunity arises.
Talking to a trained counsellor is often of benefit and can reduce much of the tension and anxiety. Trying to ignore personal feelings, or to avoid thinking or talking about the incident in the belief that they can cope, is usually counterproductive to such individuals in the long term.
Suppressing feelings can lead to a storing up of problems that create even greater difficulties.
People who have experienced a traumatic incident should be encouraged to seek professional help if they:
- Feel chronic tension, empty, exhausted or depressed;
- Continue to have nightmares, sleeping badly or have ‘flashbacks’;
- Have no one to share their emotions with;
- Think their relationships seem to be suffering, or sexual problems develop; and
- Start to be accident-prone or their work performance suffers.
It is important to encourage individuals to remember that talking about their experience can help but that suppressing their feelings can lead to further problems in the future.
The author is a BBC Guest-Broadcaster and Motivational Speaker. She is CEO of an international Stress Management consultancy and the author of ‘Show Stress Who’s Boss!’.