Risk managers warned on business impact of post-crisis trauma

Organisations are ignoring their duty of care if they do not give due consideration to the serious implications of psychological distress in the aftermath of a major crisis, trauma psychologist Dr Noreen Tehrani warns in an interview with Jessica Titherington.

There is a huge body of medical evidence showing that exposure to traumatic incidents, which often occur in a workplace environment, can cause serious psychological injury. And yet despite this, there is little awareness in business about how best to manage this rarely-discussed occupational hazard.

Dr Noreen Tehrani is a trauma psychologist who works closely with the emergency services - which typically lead the way on dealing with trauma due to the nature of the work. She sees on a regular basis the first-hand effects of trauma, and believes organisations in all sectors, not just those considered high-risk, should take a more proactive stance.

Organisations not only have legal and moral duties, she explains, but it also makes good business sense given the potential for trauma to impact absence rates and, in some cases, corporate reputation. "With a physical injury, the person usually recovers. With psychological harm, they may never recover," she says. Indeed, The British Psychological Society estimates that 80% of people who experience major trauma will be fine after a month, but 20% will not - and 5% will suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.

"It's not just an HR issue, it's a business continuity issue, it's a risk issue."

There are two main categories of trauma: primary, where the person was directly involved in an incident; and secondary, where the person is indirectly affected. Secondary trauma is often overlooked, says Dr Tehrani, but "is equally debilitating".

A common example of secondary trauma is the stress or guilt experienced by those with friends, colleagues or family hurt in an accident but who weren't actually there themselves. It can also include the psychological impact of having to re-live another person's experience, perhaps through discussing an insurance case involving child abuse, or taking testimonials about people dying. "If you can imagine something you can be affected by it," she says.

Post trauma psychology is increasingly being considered as part of the risk management domain. As Dr Tehrani argues: "It's not just an HR issue, it's a business continuity issue, it's a risk issue. You have a legal duty to treat physical and psychological risk in the same way, so this should very much be on the risk management agenda."

"Some organisations have simply been lucky that they haven't been sued"

In particular, she advises that trauma should be directly addressed in crisis management plans. "Typically, there may be a line in the crisis plans saying 'refer to HR or refer to councillor', but that is totally inadequate. What if you can't get qualified and specialist councillors in soon enough? What if HR personnel are traumatised? After major incidents, a whole organisation can become traumatised, so there are many angles to be considered."

It may be conceptually more challenging to address psychological risks rather than physical risks in crisis plans, but Dr Tehrani believes there are practical steps that can be taken. First, scenario analysis of potential crises should include consideration for who could be affected by both primary and secondary trauma. Secondly, plans for the necessary support should be put in place. This should be specific and well-researched: "A poorly qualified councillor or one with the wrong specialty could do more harm than good," she warns. Thirdly, plans should be in place for how to educate employees on the possible effects of trauma and the options available to them within the workplace.

While some organisations are clearly more likely to be affected by crises and trauma than others, any company can be affected - whether it's because of a serious accident on a corporate away-day or a major terrorist incident. And Dr Tehrani warns that for some organisations, it's just a matter of time before they are caught out on their lack of preparedness. "Some organisations have simply been lucky that they haven't been sued because they haven't done enough to ensure their duty of care to their employees."

Click here for more information on how to ensure appropriate psychological support is provided after a major incident.

Dr Noreen Tehrani is chair of the British Psychological Society's Crisis, Disaster and Trauma Psychology Section. She founded and runs Noreen Tehrani Associates, an education and consultancy group for applied trauma psychology. She will be contributing to the crisis management workshop at the ERM Forum 7 November.