Dealing with the aftermath

Incidents like Paris attack can unsettle employees far and wide
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/11/2015

Terror attacks, tragedies and natural disasters can take a significant toll on the workplace — even if they occur thousands of kilometres away. 


The November attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and injured hundreds more have caused a great deal of distress, both for employees in France and around the world, said Bill Wilkerson, co-founder and CEO of Mental Health International in Toronto. And it’s important that employers be aware of the potential mental health impacts on the workforce. 


“We are clearly entering into a drawn-out period where terrorism in the form of public attacks and public threats is on all of our doorsteps — emotionally, if not in a practical, physical sense. The presence of the 24-hour news cycle is placing it there,” he said.

“These are events which destroy individual lives and take normal places and turn them into a destruction site in the blink of an eye. And that invariably intrudes on a person’s own sense of safety and what constitutes their ‘normal.’”


It makes sense that some degree of fear, grief or apprehension will infiltrate a person’s life after events such as this one, he said.

“Employers should be sensitive to that fact and not be arbitrary and bureaucratic about whether people request to pick up their own kids from school… instead of letting them be taken home by bus, and have that understanding that employees need that flexibility during these periods.”


Psychological toll

During an attack or tragedy, people’s normal lives are torn apart by a development of danger, said Wilkerson — and that will obviously have a psychological impact. 


“I don’t think it takes a lot of deep thought on the part of an employer to understand that whether the event of the past few days is a thousand miles away or a hundred miles away, the fact remains… it could be where your brother-in-law lives, it could be where your child is going to school,” he said. 


Reactions will be very individual, said Ruth Lanius, director of the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) research unit at Western University in London, Ont. 


“So if they’ve experienced something similar in the past and this brings them back to those past memories, or it reminds them of something ongoing, those are the kind of people who will react much stronger,” she said. 


“Of course, everyone is shocked by it — concentration will be affected, people may have a decreased ability to focus on their work because they’re flooded with the media talking about this. People will think about: ‘Could this come into Canada? How could this affect us in the future?’ So I think it’s going to have a general effect. But the people who will be most affected will be people who have experienced something similar or are experiencing something maybe with their family.”


The intensity of a person’s reaction may not actually be determined by their proximity to the tragic events, said Judith Andersen, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.


“I did some research on post-9-11 and we had individuals around the country — it didn’t matter if they were in New York, they could be in Iowa — but if they had a particularly extreme reaction to the attacks, they were more likely to have physical health problems in the three years following the attack, compared with people who did not have an extreme reaction or an acute reaction,” she said.  


“With that stress reaction, they continue to worry, ruminate about those things, and it can result in increased sick days and mental health problems. So, it’s important that employers are providing (support) and making it stigma-free.” 


No boundaries

There are no geographic boundaries when it comes to the psychological impact of a terror attack, said Wilkerson.


“In a world of tremendous mobility… more and more people are travelling, more and more people are in transit, more and more people are moving from one place to another and can get caught up in this stuff, whether or not their place of residence is of high risk.”


The images appear over and over on the news, and the immediacy of the information means people don’t need to live nearby to feel personally affected by a tragedy, said Wilkerson. 


Andersen agreed. 


“The further away geographically we are, the less intense the feelings (may) be, but the fact is that images and information in all these dramatic forms are now face to face with us in every part of the world,” she said. 


“This is what people are talking about, this is what people are perceiving, we’re living in a very mobile world... This is a global reality with a very personal touch.”


Employers should take some basic measures to make sure employees feel safe and address psychological safety, said Wilkerson. 


“There are some common-sense steps one takes, in the same way that we would’ve taken 20 years ago to make sure our buildings are physically safe — now we’ve got to make sure they’re emotionally safe and there is an attention to physical security.”


Employer response

One of those steps might simply be offering flexibility, said Wilkerson. 


If employees are asking for personal time to adjust, whether to counsel their kids, attend parent-teacher meetings at school or for personal reasons, employers need to be flexible and supportive. 


“That’s just common sense and if employers reject that, then I think they’re rejecting a responsibility on their part to ensure that the employment contract is observed in every reasonable way possible — and one of those has to be the promotion and protection of employees’ mental well-being.”


Employers should also address the “fear factor” for employees who are worried about a similar event hitting closer to home, said Andersen. 


“It typically is scary for the general public when we hear something like this… there’s a lot of fear around ‘What if this happened here?’” she said. 


“But there can also be another fear if there are ‘similar’ people working at their job. We want to try to avoid people becoming fearful or angry with co-workers… In this case, if it was Islamic extremists and if people were working together with Islamic co-workers, but they didn’t know anything about their religion or they were afraid that they might share similar ideologies… there may be fear of the unknown about co-workers.”


A lack of education or simple ignorance about the religious beliefs of others could lead to unnecessary fear or tension in the workplace, said Andersen. 


“Reassurance by the employer can help, but there’s also teaching moments that really could be beneficial for employers to take advantage of this time. Because, culturally, we want to educate the public and we want to have a mix between security measures so this doesn’t happen, but also not alienating people who are not terrorists.”


As for addressing the fear that “It could happen here,” employers need to really focus on normalizing those feelings and not stigmatizing them, said Lanius. 


“Some people may have that reaction and I think what’s important in any big organization is to really try to de-stigmatize mental health as much as possible, and to really allow people to be open about their fears,” she said. 


“The safer they feel to be open about what’s actually going on with them, the easier it will be to get them help and support.”

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