Organisations are becoming more alert to the need for, and benefits of, emotional resilience amongst their employees. They are increasingly taking steps to foster resilience and support their workforce through awareness-raising activities and a range of internal and external support services. But what happens when large groups of people are exposed to the same event? Major incidents such as an act of terror, natural or man-made disaster bring unique challenges that require the careful application of some key principles.
Acute or traumatic stress arising from a major incident is different to the daily stresses and strains of life. The normality and structure of life may be lost, because by their very nature, major incidents are unexpected, sudden and often shocking or distressing. They take away a sense of control - even more so if we aren’t prepared or equipped to act. Ongoing fear and uncertainty mean that the world no longer feels safe and predictable. We may be unable to make sense of what has happened resulting in symptoms such as intrusive recollections and ruminations.
Procedures, practice and trauma-focused education can mitigate much of this impact. Leadership and communication are crucial in rebuilding a sense of safety and control, because without these elements, rumours, mistrust, chaos and cynicism will thrive.
The focus now needs to include the collective group response as well as the individual.
Groups can be powerful. Clinical and professional guidelines emphasise social support as a vital ingredient in recovery from stressful events, regardless of magnitude. However, in a major incident our usual social support in the form of colleagues, friends and family may be impaired as their own resilience is compromised.
The ripple effect and emotional contagion of major incidents can affect more than those directly involved, quickly overwhelming professional support services. It may not be possible to reach everyone affected through the usual mechanisms.
When it comes to acute psychological stresses, there are complex protective / vulnerability factors meaning that, on the ground, it can be hard to assess who is most likely to need support. Vicarious trauma, helplessness, empathic identification - 'that could have happened to me' - and our interpretation of the event are just some of the factors. Engaging people in support services is equally challenging. People may not seek help if they feel ‘less deserving’. ‘Helpers’ avoid dealing with their own responses as they support others. This can lead to long term suppression of symptoms and a host of associated risks.
Inadequate or inappropriate management can draw lasting, negative responses from the group. It’s not just the media watching how you manage the emotional impact of a major incident. Other employees’ perception of poor support can lead to a withdrawal of goodwill, reduced morale and productivity. 'If they did that to them, what would they do to me?'
Within once functioning teams, different coping styles can lead to fracture rather than cohesion. For example, someone who copes with acute distress by talking and expressing emotions at work may not be tolerated by someone who prefers to 'forget and get on with things' and vice versa. As levels of pressure or threat rise, humans become more selfishly focused as our psychological survival processes kick in. Previous workplace tensions and undercurrents may rise to the surface. Perceptions of different treatment by the organisation or expressions of 'you weren’t there' can lead to cliques, division and isolation.
Whilst we should first be aware of the challenges to resilience brought by a major incident, the key principles for managing emotional resilience in such events can be applied to any effective incident preparation and management strategy. Following these will maximise resilience, recovery and retention, make best use of resources and follow clinical and professional guidance. Managed properly, a major incident can result in improved resilience and cohesion for a community, organisation or team.
Dr Liz Royle is Director of KRTS International Ltd. She will be speaking at the Resilience First event on Emotional Resilience on 26 February.