There’s much that managers must do when the unthinkable happens, including knowing when outside intervention is needed

By Pauline Rennie Peyton, Organizational Consultant and Psychotherapist, Special to IMDiversity


During the last few years I have worked with people directly and indirectly involved in 9/11, the Asian Tsunami, the London bombings and, more recently, the hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the US.

As a psychologist working with people who have been referred to me in the aftermath of traumatic events, I help them to recover, pick themselves up and get on with their lives.  We talk about people having had normal reactions to abnormal events. (See related article, linked below.)

However, there is another dimension to thinking about how to cope with traumatic events – on an organizational level. In my role as a psychologist consulting to organizations, I am acutely aware that there is often little support for managers in their capacity as managers who, in the aftermath of trauma, are trying to get their workforce back to “normal”.  An important question is: What is the meaning of “normal”—now—for this organization?  It cannot simply go back to being the organization it was before its recent history.

Organizations – and the managers within them – can be perceived as hard or uncaring because they seem to be single-minded about getting the workforce up and running as quickly as possible after an abnormal event.  What is easy to forget is that the managers themselves have been traumatized: they too are trying to make sense of their world and want a return to normality.  Some people benefit from some time off and staying away from the scene of recent events; others need to return to work and get on with their filing.

Organizing a memorial service – whether to be held on the business premises or outside – allows the remaining staff to feel valued.  The setting need not have religious connotations; for some organizations it may be appropriate to go to a local bar where, in a more social setting, people can talk about themselves, the event, the “what-ifs,” and possibly their lost colleagues.

Grief reactions in people do not follow a set pattern and take many guises; some people may appear to be jollier than usual, while others seem depressed.  Losing a colleague after a long illness is sad and it affects the team; however, the losses suffered as a result of abnormal events are untimely and totally unexpected.  People had woken up, eaten their breakfast, left for work, and were getting on with their lives.  Many had planned where they were going for lunch, or where they would go that evening and, suddenly, their world changed.  When we think about it in those terms, how could it not alter something about the people and the dynamics within the organization?

When changes take place within an organization, for example mergers, buy-outs, or downsizing, the people who are left frequently go through a grieving process.  Those who still have jobs when their friends and colleagues have lost theirs experience what is often termed “survivor’s guilt”.  In the context of abnormal, catastrophic events, however, this takes on whole new dimension, especially when the friends and colleagues are dead or too seriously injured (physically or mentally) to return to work.

Managers who talk about what they see going on with their team are less likely to be shut out and treated as an uncaring alien.  It is fine to talk about someone who is dead — and not treat them or their death as a taboo subject.  It is OK to acknowledge that many members, and possibly the whole company, are grieving, and that grief is a process that needs to be acknowledged even if it is not dwelt on.

Managers and Human Resources personnel often voice the idea to me that they feel as though they can’t win; they are not going to please everyone because there is generally someone who does not want their late colleagues to be mentioned. How should they deal with that?  My answer is that this is an appropriate time to consider the option is of referring those people on for some individual support.

Others within the organization might be angry and appear to be constantly on a short fuse. It’s a good idea to talk to these people, as they may have no idea about the effect their behavior is having on others in their working environment.

By helping people to accept and understand that everyone is traumatized to varying degrees – and that they all need to be extra vigilant at taking care of themselves and others – a sense of universality can be created.  Even the people who were away at the time the event took place can, and invariably do, feel traumatized by the “might have been” and “it could have been me” thoughts that they find impinging on their consciousness.

If, several months after an event, a member of staff is distant, appears depressed, or is just not his or her usual self, it is often a good idea to let them know that you have noticed and ask if there is anything that you can do (including referring them on to whatever support system is available within your organization).

What we frequently forget is just how close some people become to their colleagues.  The fact that their lives outside the workplace are separate does not in any way minimize the strength of their friendship; often they know more about each other’s innermost thoughts and feelings than the people they live with.  This was very much brought into my conscious mind after 9/11 when I worked with a group of young people who traveled together as part of their job. In effect, part of the time they lived together.  They were colleagues, best friends, lovers and often closer than family.  How could they not have been devastated at losing people who formed part of their identity?

Another similarity to the trauma of losing a family member became clear when senior members of the management team were lost. These older colleagues had “looked out” for the younger ones and had kept them under control as they worked, and played, hard.

Many company policies spell out that employees are allowed a certain amount of compassionate leave when they lose a relative. I have never seen a similar policy in respect to compassionate leave on the death of a friend or colleague.

I can never stress strongly enough that those people with either “Manager” or “Human Resources” as part of their title are not immune from needing outside help.  If you yourself are experiencing not feeling “normal” or are aware of a colleague who is experiencing the effects of trauma, please seek help sooner rather than later.  People in these responsible roles often take on the problems of their teams without the supervision and training that they need — yet they fail to notice when they themselves need help.

From experience, I can tell you that, most often, it is not that organizations are uncaring but rather that they don’t know what to do when these events happen.  Most organizations have Dignity at Work Policies, Health and Safety Policies, etc., and so they know exactly what to do when an employee is in breach of a code of conduct or is engaging in an unlawful activity. However, very few organizations have a policy in place to deal with natural disasters or terrorist attacks.  Most of us still bury our heads in the sand, believing and hoping that we will not be affected by these horrors.

Bringing in a psychologist/counselor who is used to working in organizations, and is comfortable dealing with trauma, is helpful.  In addition, doing so sends a message to the staff that the Management values them sufficiently to want to help them as teams and as individuals.  Those who want to talk, either in groups or singly, are given the opportunity. Others choose their own ways of dealing with the situation.  Furthermore, the outsider is well placed to give information about what help is available to them (for example, a company EAP scheme), which can prove invaluable in these events.

Trauma in the workplace does not need to have been caused by anything as dramatic as a terrorist attack or natural disaster; people can be traumatized by the loss of a colleague especially if the colleague dies on the premises.  For example, workplace accidents occur on building sites or anywhere where there is an element of risk.  Although these events are shocking to colleagues they often have less impact than one in which a healthy member of staff suffers a sudden, fatal heart attack at their desk.  Again, from a practical point of view, most organizations know exactly what to do in these situations (get the emergency services, inform relatives, organize cover, etc.).  However, witnesses and colleagues need to be allowed to talk about the effect any such incident has had on them. Often, the managers are not the best people to do it as they are too closely involved and are themselves also suffering the loss of a member of staff.  Time needs to be set aside to deal with this, which shows respect for both the deceased member of staff and for those who remain.   In a larger organization a member of the Human Resources team can be the right person to lead this, although if they knew the deceased personally they too would need some support. Again, in this instance bringing in outside help is invaluable.

Finally, organizations and managers need to be aware of milestone anniversaries. If they ignore these important dates, they might well find that a large percentage of the workforce is off at the first anniversary — and many with legitimate reasons.  By acknowledging it in some way, it informs the staff that you haven’t forgotten what they went through and that they are valued.


Other Articles of Interest by Pauline Rennie-Peyton


Pauline Rennie Peyton is an integrative psychotherapist who lives in London, England. Her specialization is workplace bullying. She consults to organizations—ranging in size from the largest multinationals to single-entity businesses, and encompassing the laws of many countries—and assists in policy writing and implementation, training, investigating, mediating and counseling both victims and perpetrators of bullying. Dr. Rennie Peyton’s book, Dignity at Work (Routledge) is profiled at the website is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.