Terrorist attacks in Paris have again highlighted how suddenly our sense of normality and security can be shattered by the unexpected. Major incidents send shockwaves through whole networks of people. In this case, there’s the heightened threat of further attacks and violence, of the increased risks from travelling, of day-to-day business.

The Government’s National Terrorism and Security Office has this week released guidance to employers on creating a ‘dynamic lockdown’ to stall any possible terrorist attack and advise staff on tactics for escaping any harm.

The logistics is one thing, but for employees, the implications of a traumatic incident – whether it’s directly related to them or not, just from stories of what’s happened to colleagues and their friends, from the repeated media news and images of the incidents – can be far-reaching in terms of their ability to go back to a ‘normal’ way of working.

It’s important that HR and occupational health also have plans in place for how they would respond to a traumatic incident and what kinds of support they’re realistically able to provide. By working with critical-incident planners, HR has a key role in particular to play in ensuring the business understands the importance of the psychological dimension to the aftermath of crises – to better provide support and also reduce the costs and absence and rehabilitation. The general focus following any incident is typically to focus on any physical injuries. Psychological injuries are much less often a priority – and less likely to be attended to in the right ways.

1. Become knowledgeable about normal reactions to an abnormal events

Faced with shock, and distress many people panic. They feel frightened and threatened and want to escape quickly or fight their way through it. Other people become almost paralysed with fear and unable to think or do anything. We have seen all of this behaviour on the streets of Paris this week. It is important for those of us supporting employees in this state to understand that all these reactions are natural responses to unexpected, sudden and powerful experiences. If we can develop our own knowledge about these reactions we are much more likely to stay calm and be in a position to help others without getting overwhelmed by the intensity of the distress.

2. Empower, educate and encourage

Often when we are helping distressed people, we think we know what they need. But, one of the most important things you can do is to empower employees to think about what they need for themselves.In practice this requires empowering them to take a proactive approach to their own recovery. You can help by asking them what they most need to feel safe and secure again and supporting them to meet this need for themselves. If they want someone they trust to collect them, encourage them to make the call themselves instead of doing this for them. It¹s important to be compassionate but in a way that gets them to start functioning again.

3. Remember the ABC of psychological first aid

Just as there¹s an ABC for physical first aid: A: Aairways, B: Breathing, C: circulation. There¹s also an ABC for providingpsychological first aid: Attend to Basic needs with Compassion. Psychological first aid is basically a series of helpful conversations that gently directs people to a position of stability, safety and calm. The most effective psychological first aid often comes from friends, family and colleagues who can use their familiarity with the distressed person to offer practical, non-intrusive support. We have a hightened alertness and a heightened memory for specific acts of kindness during stressful times. So if you can offer this immediate support it will be remembered.

4. Prepare managers and leaders

Although professionally trained trauma management specialists, can be swiftly deployed to deliver appropriate psychological support in the aftermath of an incident, it¹s the immediate response of managers and leaders that has the biggest impact on the health of employees. Anyone in a position of authority needs to be prepared for their internal communication as well as their external communication. There is a plethora of training workshops on handling the media during and after traumatic events but what about the communication to  staff. Employees will have a heightened awareness to the tone and words that are communicated by managers at this time so ensure that it is frequent, regular, factual, compassionate and action-focussed. Otherwise social media communication will take over and become the authority voice.

5. Plan for the unexpected

The very nature of traumatic events means they are bolts from the blue that no one anticipated when they set off for work that morning. Even so you can plan for the unexpected by developing a business continuity plan that not only looks at practical considerations, such as relocation of workspace and contacting next of kin, but also how best to meet the psychological needs of employees. The better prepared you are with training, information and practical resources, the more engaged and positive your staff will be during the recovery period.

6. Create support networks

Most people are resilient and will recover with the support of family, friends and the wider community. That¹s why as well as encouraging empowerment and education, any psychological first aid strategy should also encourage people to connect with others for support. The more engaged and interconnected people are during a normal working day, the more likely they are to support each other after a crisis. Employers can help create support networks by facilitating group discussions on topics of interest or concern to employees.

Mandy Rutter, Head of Trauma Management at psychological wellbeing consultancy Validium,





Robert joined the HRreview editorial team in October 2015. After graduating from the University of Salford in 2009 with a BA in Politics, Robert has spent several years working in print and online journalism in Manchester and London. In the past he has been part of editorial teams at Flux Magazine, Mondo*Arc Magazine and The Marine Professional.