Supporting staff during a disaster

If you read nothing else, read this…

• A disaster, such as the Japanese tsunami, can have huge ramifications for affected employers.

• Organisations must consider how to rehabilitate traumatised employees in the long term.

• The immediate aftermath is typically not the best time to introduce new benefits for staff.

• Raising morale without attracting criticism for focusing on trivial matters is a key consideration for employers.


Case study: Freshfields is ready for emergencies

With over 2,500 lawyers in 27 cities around the world, law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer must be prepared for all eventualities.

The company, which has a Tokyo office, has a clear disaster recovery plan. Kevin Hogarth, global HR director, says: “Ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our people is our primary concern. Minimising the impact of any incident on our clients and resuming business as usual as quickly as possible is also a key priority.”

In an emergency, the firm’s first priority is to locate staff and ensure they are safe. It has an emergency information telephone line and provides live updates on its website.

Once the scale of the incident is known, it sets up alternative working arrangements if needed, such as working from home or at a client’s premises.

The firm’s London office has an employee assistance programme that offers 24-hour support. It also offers staff private medical insurance.

Emergencies call for decisive action by employers, and plans must be in place to support staff fully, says Jenny Keefe

Earlier this year, a series of earthquakes and a huge tsunami tore through north-east Japan, claiming more than 14,300 lives, with more than 10,000 people still missing. It is hard to think of a more traumatic situation. So how can employers help guide workers through such devastating events, whether these are on a large scale, or more local events such as the death of an employee at work?

Libby Payne, executive member of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), says the immediate task after a major disaster is to ensure workers are safe, making sure any injuries are treated properly, locating lost property, making travel arrangements and updating family members.

David Lloyd, development consultant at the Business Continuity Institute (BCI), says: “On the day of the London bombings [7 July 2005], I was with a company in Manchester. It took three hours to track down four of its staff who were on separate visits to London, but this was its number one priority. Happily, all four were safe.”

Benefits after traumatic events can include evacuation, medical assistance, accommodation, food and drink, financial assistance, bereavement counselling and commuting support. Charles Cotton, reward adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says: “Some relevant benefits may already be covered, such as death in service or through an employee assistance programme (EAP). But employers should know in advance what policies cover, because after the 9/11 [terrorist] attacks, insurers tightened their policies.”

Once the immediate emergency is over, employers should turn their attention to workers’ psychological wounds.

Nadia Sira, a consultant in Lane Clark and Peacock’s employee benefits practice, says trauma can manifest itself in many ways, such as a reluctance to return to work at an affected location or stress caused by the death of colleagues.

Consider crisis management

Employers should also plan ahead for future emergencies. “They should take crisis management seriously,” says the BCI’s Lloyd. “Consider the consequences of an incident and see whether HR policies are sufficient.”

Employers should be aware of duty-of-care responsibilities under the Health and Safety at Work Act and the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.

The number of victims in a disaster is far greater than those killed or injured and the strains on survivors can be immense. Cotton says: “Those directly affected may be unable to focus until they get to the acceptance stage of grief. Those not directly affected may suffer from survival syndrome.”

Professional emotional support can help. Robin Hames, head of technical, marketing and research at Bluefin, says: “Trauma counselling is often the most practical assistance that can be offered to the injured or bereaved. Where possible, the offer of counselling should be proactive rather than reactive.”

The EAPA’s Payne adds: “Wellbeing initiatives can help recovery. For example, the occupational health team could offer health checks and advice on diet, exercise and rest.”

Over the ensuing months, employers should assess how to rehabilitate traumatised staff in the long term. This could involve flexible working or creating specific roles for rehabilitated workers.

Focus on practical realities

Employers must pay attention to some practical realities, says Bluefin’s Hames. “Paying for some initial personal financial advice for the injured or bereaved is another way to assist. For some, the payment of a large lump sum, from a life assurance policy for instance, can add to the stress.”

Workers who lose a colleague will need specific help. Payne says: “Employers should communicate clearly what they plan to do. It may be sending a senior team member to represent the [organisation] at the funeral or arranging a floral tribute. Family members will need to be consulted and colleagues notified if they are welcome to attend.”

Fundraising in memory of lost colleagues can be a salve for bereaved staff. Employers could pledge to match donations to a relevant charity or allow time off for fundraising. Hames says: “Fundraising helps employees feel that they are doing something together to recognise their loss. It also shows the employer appreciates workers’ grief is valid.

“There is also an opportunity to explain how the organisation’s benefits have assisted, provided it is done sensitively and without losing focus on victims and their families. Gently observing that benefits have supported staff in a time of great stress can prompt others to take up the benefit.”

But Bluefin’s Hames says the aftermath of a disaster is not the best time to introduce benefits such as private medical insurance or income protection. “Firstly, the cost may be distorted by the event, particularly if a significant number of employees are off work. It may even be counter-productive. A communication outlining new benefits that would have helped victims may make employees wonder why they were not there beforehand.”

Another issue for employers is how to raise morale without attracting criticism for focusing on trivial matters. This can be crucial if surviving employees are tasked with rebuilding the business. The EAPA’s Payne says: “Resources should be brought in to support stressed and overstretched teams. Often, sending people home is the last thing they need. It is usually far better for employees to stay with their colleagues and process what has happened together.”

Overall, the BCI’s Lloyd says disasters can actually strengthen relationships between staff. “If employers do the right things, morale will recover. In fact, it may be wrong to assume morale has suffered. It may be hard to motivate people in the short term, but a tragedy may bring people together.”


How to plan for future emergencies

1 Plan for the worst Run through scenarios in advance, preferably with senior management, breaking down consequences and key benefits that would help.

2 Check if insurers will pay out Many risk benefits were tightened after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. Check in what circumstances critical illness insurance, income protection or private medical insurance will pay out.

3 Clarify what your EAP covers A standard employee assistance programme is unlikely to offer assistance tailored to dealing with the aftermath of a disaster. However, specialist services are available for an extra cost.

4 Plan for all disruption As well as major incidents, envisage disruptive incidents that do not involve injury or death, but are still distressing for staff. For example, power failures, transport issues, fire or severe weather.

5 Shout about benefits Raise employees’ awareness about benefits that could help ease the pain of a disaster. This not only reminds workers that they are valued, but they will know what steps to take to obtain assistance in an emergency.


Ten top tips to pick up the pieces

1 Prioritise safety After a disaster, first ensure staff are safe and fully informed. Check injured workers get the right treatment.

2 Communicate Talk to employees and let them know what is going on. Often, employers update workers who are taking part in the recovery effort, but forget those who have been sent home.

3 Co-ordinate In a big reconstruction effort, co-ordinate with relevant organisations such as the police, the police casualty bureau (if there are missing persons), local authorities and the Red Cross.

4 Help heal psychological scars Offer counselling to help employees recover from their ordeal.

5 Do not forget survivors Consider the needs of employees who were not directly involved. They can be just as traumatised as those caught up in the incident.

6 Offer financial advice A cash sum, from a life insurance payout for example, can create problems, because it is another decision for stressed employees to make.

7 Support rehabilitation Help injured people return to work by creating specific roles and flexible working schemes.

8 Assess risk Symptoms of trauma include concentration loss, so check staff are fit before they carry out vital work.

9 Give something back Fundraising for an appropriate charity in memory of the victims can help ease workers’ grief.

10 Benchmark against other employers If a disaster affects many organisations, you will not want to be seen as the one that offered less help than others.

Read more on maintaining staff morale