Distress noun | dis·tress | \ di-ˈstres \
extreme unhappiness or worry, a state of danger or desperate need
We recommend that one of the clearly stated aims of your Incident Management Plan is to reduce the psychological distress suffered by the people who would look to you for a response following an incident.
Depending on the event the people affected could be: colleagues; customers; or their friends and family; or others. Sometimes people far from the site of the incident can be affected. Even your colleagues who are trying to help on your behalf might suffer unexpected distress.
People will react after a traumatic or tragic event. Their reactions are often distressing and will disrupt their lives, for a while at least. This isn’t a sign that they are strange, ill, weak or mad. It is normal for otherwise capable and resilient people to experience troubling reactions after a shocking and frightening incident.
If distress is inevitable, why bother to respond?
Traumatised people are often very worried by their reactions. They might ask:
- What does this say about me?
- Will I ever be the same person again?
- Am I the only one feeling like this?
- Am I going mad?
- What should I do and not do?
- When will it get better?
- Do I need treatment from a doctor?
You don’t have a magic wand of course; nor do we. And there are no special words that will make the reactions instantly go away.
But a helpful, caring response from you and from specialist providers on your behalf (if needed) will be reassuring, will retain goodwill and will lead to better outcomes.
If people feel that their needs have been recognised and they have been properly looked after it will have a positive impact on your reputation and bring control to costs. And it will reduce the anger and distress that might have otherwise occurred.
Barriers to overcome
- It’s tempting to design an Incident Management Plan that prioritises your commercial or organisational concerns.Yet the most important outcomes will be heavily influenced by what people thought of your response to their psychological distress. Were you prompt? Were you caring? Were you appropriately generous and helpful?
- Fears about social media and the public reaction to your incident can be so paralysing and distracting that you focus too much on drafting and editing public statements – instead of thinking about the people who are expecting a response from you.
- It’s a huge relief if your incident doesn’t seem to have caused any deaths or serious injuries. If so, it is very tempting to hope that all will be well and that no special response is needed. Unfortunately the absence of death and injury is not a helpful guide to whether or not people have been psychologically traumatised. It is more useful to understand how to recognise a traumatising event.
- If you are not technically liable for the distress and damage caused by an incident you may think that you don’t have a role in responding to it. Unfortunately the people who are affected will recognise a moral duty of care even where no legal duty exists.
What should be done to reduce distress?
Here are a few basics:
- Learn how to recognise a potentially traumatic incident so you can respond promptly
- Train the colleagues who will have direct contact with those affected
- Ensure your Incident Management Team are aware of the pitfalls that come from underestimating the impact of psychological distress
- Be willing to ‘spend now to save later’.
- Build familiarity with any specialist suppliers that you might need during incident response – outcomes will be better if you do
- Don’t assume that your response is over as soon as ‘the dust has settled’. You will achieve much better outcomes if you sustain your support and communication
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Have you got a couple of minutes to spare?
Write down an exhaustive list of potentially traumatic experiences.
What does your list contain?
Sure, the obvious candidates must be there… armed robbery; sexual assault; terrorism; transportation accidents; natural disasters and so on.
Some people would add other life events such as losing your job or divorce.
Your list is getting quite long.
Yet however long your list becomes there will always be something you missed.
When you were wondering what should go on your list you were – consciously or unconsciously – trying to decide what makes an event traumatic. What do you think the common characteristic could be that links all the events on your list? In other words – what does make an event traumatic?
You might be surprised to learn that it isn’t the presence or absence of death or injury – or indeed any other specific characteristic of the actual event.
No, an event is traumatic if the people affected suffer acute distress both during and after the event. In other words – if the event causes the distressing and disruptive reactions that we call psychological trauma then it is a traumatic event – by definition. Though it isn’t exactly the same for everyone.
Distress caused by a traumatic event takes different forms. Almost any negative emotion, such as fear; anger; guilt; anxiety; horror; sadness or helplessness could be though of as a ‘state of distress’. Sometimes distress is easy for others to witness, for example crying or visible anger. But most distress is invisible; it takes place inside our minds. Often we deliberately hide our distress.
Experiencing distress after a traumatic event is almost inevitable. But some distress is unnecessary and could be prevented or minimised.
Traumatic events are almost always frightening, both at the time and afterwards. It is usual to fear that the same thing or something similar will happen again. But the victim might also feel fearful because they don’t know what to make of their troubling reactions. They might worry that they’re never going to be the same again; or that they won’t be able to return to certain parts of their life.
This type of distress can be helped with some simple information, delivered in plain English, which is usually reassuring. That reassurance, and reduction in distress, comes from victims discovering that although their reactions are disruptive they are normal and not a sign that they are ill or somehow weaker than other people.
Another form of distress is anger. Long-lasting angry reactions are common when victims of traumatic events feel that they haven’t been properly looked after. This type of anger is very troublesome for everyone involved. It is psychologically distressing for the victim to carry that anger around, and their anger can motivate further problems e.g. legal; financial; reputational.
These problems can be minimised or even avoided entirely by adopting the mantra of Prompt, Proactive and Personal in your Incident Management Plan. It is vital to avoid the victims thinking that your response to their traumatic experience is slow, unprepared, penny-pinching, unwilling or reluctant.