Coming back from trauma

Like it or not, managers often have to be prepared to say a word or two to their staff fairly early on after tragedies to help them deal with the trauma and related issues.

Words fail to describe the complete horror of events like that which struck the US.

Imagine you are one of a handful of staff left from a World Trade Centre business. Imagine losing not just one but many of your colleagues, and perhaps your boss. The events that happened on September 11 will scar for a long time -- and even if few New Zealanders are directly affected, the attacks are bound to have some impact on all of us.

Like it or not, managers often have to be prepared to say a word or two to their staff fairly early on after tragedies to help them deal with the trauma and related issues.

What should they tell their staff? Or even their children? How do we ourselves cope?

HR.com ran a number of features including “When Crazy is Normal”, in which clinical psychologist Joni Johnston gives “Thirteen Ways to Get Through The Rest of the Week.”

These include: take plenty of exercise, keep busy, reach out and talk to people, keep as normal a schedule as possible, avoid numbing pain with drugs and alcohol, spend time with others, allow yourself to feel rotten, do things that make you feel good, realise you are under stress, don’t make any big life changes, make as many daily decisions as possible to feel in control of your life, eat well-balanced meals and get plenty of rest.

Microsoft is one of many corporates with its own support programme. “Care” offers a range of confidential services for its staff and their families.

Microsoft NZ spokeswoman Carol Leishman says at times of crisis like this, the company gives people “space and time off” to deal with the issue in their own way. Here, this included letting one of its American-born employees go to Auckland airport to meet the planes arriving from overseas. This was how he handled the trauma and felt he was contributing, says Leishman.

HR.Com also offers tips on “Dealing With the Death of an Employee”, “Depression In the Workplace” and even “Wartime Survival Tips”.

Author Mark Gorkin, “The Stress Doc”, talks of a roller coaster of emotions, including “anticipatory grieving” -- looking back to a previous loss stirred by the current tragedy. Tips to survive wartime include finding strength in numbers by sharing your losses and what it calls the four R’s -- Running, Reading, Retreating and 'riting.

Gorkin says a regime of running produces endorphins that slow a racing mid and help lift a sluggish mood. Similar relief can also be found in aerobic exercise. Reading humorous stories makes you feel better by similarly creating endorphins. Comedy can be particularly tragic, which makes it funny, and a good laugh is a great internal work-out, he says. Retreating is taking a refuge from the crisis to tend to your wounds, take stock and reflect on the current upheavals. And writing to loved ones becomes a vital bridge to heart and home, as well as being a source of self-discovery and a tool for keeping the faith.

Website Trauma Pages, offers help on “What To Tell The Children About Terrorist Bombings” from the the NorthWestern University Medical School in Chicago. The site also features the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and a raft of related post-disaster advice. It covers Coping Suggestions, Reducing Building Safety Fears, Emotional Health Issues for Disaster Victims and about 15 pages of related disaster links, including an Emergency Management Guide for Business and Industry.

Closer to home, Canadian certified trauma specialist Donna Tona plans to visit Wellington in November to talk on “How to Support Staff in Times of Crises”.

Auckland-based organiser Peter Rudd of the Institute for International Research says Tona should be in New York by now after helping on dramas as diverse as the Oklahoma City bombing and the Fiji hostage situation.

Massey University School of Psychology funds the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies. Recent studies include “An Evaluation of Humour in Emergency Work.” Bad taste as they may be, brace yourself for the jokes. It’s a way of coping, they say, which is why “black humour” is a favourite of emergency workers.

Greenwood is Computerworld's human resources reporter. Send email to Darren Greenwood. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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